1997 News of the Nation
At the end of 1996, House Speaker Newt Gingrich had been under investigation for possible ethics violations in using tax-exempt money for political purposes. A House sub-committee found him guilty of providing inaccurate and misleading information to investigators, and fined him an unprecedented $300,000. In a show of party unity, former senator Bob Dole offered to lend Gingrich the money as a personal loan. The arrangement was praised by some as an improvement over earlier plans to pay the fine out of campaign contributions, while others criticized the plan as a violation of ethics rules, which prohibit lawmakers from accepting loans from any source other than banks and financial institutions.
Eager to turn attention from their own embattled party, Republicans began calling for a full-scale investigation into alleged campaign financing irregularities by Democrats in the 1996 election. Senior Democratic officials allegedly pressured Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to raise funds for the re-election bid. Republicans objected to Gore's placing phone calls requesting donations from his office in the White House, and to Clinton's apparent use of White House perks to compensate significant donors. Early morning coffee with the President, or an overnight stay in the Lincoln bedroom were the most frequently cited quid-pro-quos for large donations to the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Democratic efforts to expand the investigation to include Republican fundraising practices were largely unsuccessful, as were Republican attempts to convince Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Democrats.
Further allegations centered on the role of contributions from non-U.S. citizens, particularly in China, and the possibility that the Chinese were buying political influence with their illegal contributions. Current rules stipulate that only U.S. citizens are eligible to contribute to political campaigns and parties; the investigation showed a string of donations by Chinese companies and individuals, often filtered through intermediaries on their way into the coffers of the DNC or the Republican National Committee (RNC). Both parties returned significant portions of the donations they received in 1996 because they were either unable to verify the source of the donation, or because the source was improper.
The other facet of the investigation focused on how the funds were raised. Both National Committees are eligible for “soft-money” donations that are not subject to the dollar-amount limitations placed on donations to a particular candidate. The rules stipulate, however, that these donations cannot be solicited or received on the grounds of the White House. By September the Senate committee investigating fundraising irregularities had turned its gaze to the activities of Vice President Gore. Reno in September called for a review of Gore's phone calls, the first step in appointing an independent council investigation. Gore was also tied to fund-raising activities at a Buddhist temple in California that admitted to laundering $65,000 for the DNC. Later in September, Reno also called for a review of all White House phone records, possibly leading to an independent council investigation of Clinton, as well.
The fervent interest in uncovering alleged violations of campaign finance rules was not evident outside the beltway, however. The Congressional investigations were largely ignored by the American public, who seemed to feel that the tactics used in the 1996 election were symptomatic of the need for finance reform rather than cause for a partisan witch hunt. Cynics and critics of the investigations charged that the investigations would not alter the outcome of the election, and were therefore a waste of taxpayer dollars. Ironically, Republicans stymied Clinton's efforts at reforming campaign financing in his first term, and Majority Leader Trent Lott met the call for reform in 1997 with procedural maneuvers to cut short the debate and prevent passage of reform legislation.
Investigations into Clinton's Washington activities were mirrored by those into alleged wrongdoing in his life in Arkansas. A sexual harassment suit brought against President Clinton for alleged actions while he was Governor of Arkansas had been long delayed through a series of legal tactics. The Supreme Court ruled in May, however, that the lawsuit brought by Paula Jones could proceed, overruling Clinton's claims that a sitting President should not be distracted by such suits while in office. The Whitewater investigation also continued throughout the year. Billing records from the Rose law firm, where Mrs. Clinton was a partner, mysteriously reappeared just days before Mrs. Clinton was to testify before a grand jury in January. This was the first time a First Lady had been called to testify before a federal grand jury, but that was just the beginning of the focus on Mrs. Clinton. Legal notes summarizing conversations between Mrs. Clinton and attorneys were subpoenaed as well, and turned over after months of legal wrangling alleging violation of attorney-client privilege. The notes ultimately contained nothing incriminating.
In May, one of the two grand juries convened to investigate possible wrongdoing by the Clintons in connection with the failed real estate venture was dismissed at the conclusion of its two-year term. In July, the investigation was expanded and records were subpoenaed from a bank on whose board Mrs. Clinton had served. In August it was revealed that Johnnie Chung, a figure in the campaign finance investigation, had made a $25,000 donation to a fund whose aim is to refute Whitewater charges against the Clintons. (Chung had earlier handed a $50,000 DNC donation check to the First Lady's chief of staff while both were on White House grounds.) Starr convened a new federal grand jury in September to continue the investigation.
Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr himself became the center of media attention in February when he announced his decision to take a job as dean at Pepperdine University's law school, abandoning the investigation he had zealously pursued until then. Four days later, he ended speculation that the investigation of the Clintons was over when he decided to remain as special prosecutor "until the job is done."