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1997 In Review: Political And Personal Scandals Hounded Clinton

Washington, 11 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Bill Clinton began his second term as president of the United States urging bipartisan leadership to accomplish "big things" for the American people, but controversies about his political and personal behavior proved to be a major distraction for the White House all year.

In November 1996 Clinton became only the third Democrat to win election to two successive four-year terms -- Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 were the others. However, unlike Wilson and Roosevelt, Clinton did not return to office in January with a majority in the U.S. Congress. The Republican Party maintained control in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and, despite Clinton's call for a vigorous government from the political center, partisan squabbling frequently marred White House-Congressional relations.

One dispute that simmered all year and was still unresolved as 1997 drew to a close was the issue of raising funds for national political campaigns.

In the annual presidential address to Congress in February, Clinton urged the legislators to pass a campaign finance reform measure that would impose more restrictions on campaign contributions. Some Republicans, however, considered the president to be insincere and hypocritical on this issue because of a developing scandal over fund-raising for the 1996 presidential and congressional campaigns.

The Washington Post reported in early March that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was looking into allegations that the Chinese government had planned to buy political influence in Washington by donating money to political candidates, mostly Democrats.

U.S. election laws forbid political donations from foreign governments, foreign corporations and foreign nationals. The newspaper said the FBI had proof that China had secretly funneled money into the U.S. during 1996, but it was never established whether any Chinese money ever wound up in the hands of candidates or political parties.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate convened their own hearings in the spring and summer and questioned senior Democratic party officials about the alleged Chinese plot -- an allegation that China repeatedly denied. President Clinton was never accused of wrongdoing, but he was embarrassed by disclosures that some party functionaries had been deeply involved with Asian corporations, interested in Chinese business and, by reports from the FBI, that White House officials had failed to tell Clinton about the Bureau's investigation of the alleged Chinese scheme.

If the Congressional hearings did not resolve the issue of a Chinese connection to the 1996 elections, the hearings did raise more serious questions about the fund-raising activities of Vice President Al Gore and of Clinton himself.

The waging of a presidential campaign in the U.S. is a costly enterprise. A private organization called the Campaign Study Group reported that President Clinton and his Republican presidential opponent, former Senator Robert Dole, together spent almost $232 million on the race in 1995 and 1996.

The Presidential Election Fund, a government fund financed with income tax collections, provided the two candidates with about $150 million. The rest of the money was raised by the candidates, their own organizations and the national political parties. White House spokesman Michael McCurry says fund-raising is a fact of life and practically a full-time job for a president who wants to be re-elected. Clinton, in fact, reportedly raised more than one million dollars in the first week of December by speaking at dinners. The Democrats need this money to pay off 1996 campaign debts.

There are, however, strict laws regulating fund-raising, including a rule that prohibits federal officials -- including the president and vice president -- from raising money on government property.

Republicans charged that, even if the White House did not violate these laws in the runup to the 1996 election, President Clinton and Vice President Gore abused their positions by hosting meetings at the White House of potential donors, and inviting wealthy special guests capable of making big donations to the party to spend the night in some of the historic rooms of the White House. Gore was also accused of making telephone calls to solicit donations from his office. Gore says he did not violate election laws.

The U.S. Justice Department can investigate allegations of abuses, but the Republicans claim that U.S. Attorney General (Justice Minister) Janet Reno cannot run a neutral investigation because she is a Democrat who was appointed by Clinton. They have been insisting for almost a year that she step aside and order an independent investigation by a special prosecutor from outside the government. She refused, and said on December 3 that there is not now enough evidence to justify a special prosecutor. That decision angered senior Republicans in the Congress, and they are likely to reconvene hearings on the campaign finance issue early next year.

Clinton also had to cope with an ongoing legal battle arising from allegations about improper personal behavior during his last term as governor of the southern state of Arkansas.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a petition by the president's private attorneys to delay until the end of Clinton's term as president in 2001 a sexual harassment lawsuit brought against Clinton by a former Arkansas state employee named Paula Corbin Jones.

The unanimous ruling by the nine justices was the first time that the nation's highest court ruled that a sitting president could be sued for actions outside the realm of his official duties. The justices rejected the argument of Clinton's lawyers, who said the president should have temporary immunity from civil actions because of his position as commander-in-chief.

Jones had filed suit against Clinton in 1994. She accused him of making improper advances to her and exposing himself to her at a hotel in the Arkansas capital of Little Rock during a state trade fair in 1991. Clinton has denied that the incident happened and has said that he does not remember ever meeting Jones.

The Supreme Court ruling means that the case of Jones versus Clinton will go forward, but no dates have been set for further hearings.

Republicans weren't exempt from bad publicity, either. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia), admitted that he violated Congressional rules on ethics and improperly used funds raised by a political organization that he founded. The admission almost cost Gingrich his position as chairman of the legislature. He was ordered by the House to repay $300,000 that his political organization had collected. Gingrich also narrowly escaped an attempt in July by fellow Republicans to oust him from the leadership.