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Bankers invited to meeting with Clinton, regulator, records show

January 25, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In the year and a half before his re-election, President Clinton invited more than 400 of his party’s top financial supporters, most from corporate America, to the White House for informal chats about his policies.

In one of the 76 coffee klatches, the president and the nation’s chief banking regulator sat down with more than a dozen leading bankers _ as well as political operatives from the Democratic National Committee.

After the White House released the guest lists Friday, a spokesman for comptroller of the currency Eugene Ludwig said that when the bank regulator was invited, ``he did not know that anyone would be there from the Democratic Party.″ Ludwig discussed banking at the meeting, said the spokesman, Dean DeBuck.

The White House defended that coffee meeting and others like it as perfectly appropriate.

``A bank regulator being in a room with people in the industry that he regulates is not an unusual activity,″ White House spokesman Lanny Davis said when asked for comment.

Davis acknowledged the events were set up by the Democratic Party and campaign officials for ``sustaining and developing political support,″ but he said there was nothing wrong with using the White House setting or the participation of administration officials.

But Rep. Gerald B. Solomon, R-N.Y., said inviting the banking regulator to meet with bankers at a political event was ``highly unethical.″ Solomon, chairman of the House Rules Committee, suggested in a telephone interview that it might even have been an illegal use of government property.

Davis said, ``There’s nothing unusual in presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton inviting people to the White House, some of which happen to be your financial contributors.″

Most of the coffee meetings lasted from 45 minutes to an hour, and typically Clinton would stop by to describe his policies and answer questions, Davis said. The meetings usually were held around a table in the White House Map Room.

In almost all cases, political operatives from the Democratic National Committee took part, along with senior administration aides. They often included Mack McLarty, a former utility company executive from Clinton’s home state and now a senior adviser to the president.

From January 1995 through September 1996, executives invited to the coffees included people from Tenneco, Walt Disney, Miramax, NYNEX, Philip Morris, Circus Circus casinos, AT&T, Coca-Cola, American Crystal Sugar and Goldman Sachs.

Executives from some of the nation’s largest banks _ Wells Fargo, Chase Manhattan, NationsBank and BankAmerica _ were invited to the May 13, 1996, coffee with Ludwig. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin also was on the list.

Topics discussed included trade, unemployment, education and a proposal to rescue the savings and loan industry’s deposit insurance fund by merging it into the insurance fund for commercial banks, said Walter A. Dods, chairman and chief executive officer of First Hawaiian Inc.

Dods, who has since also become president of the American Bankers Association, recalled Friday that Clinton ``was a very good listener″ to the bankers’ viewpoints and that Ludwig and Rubin mainly discussed technical points. Dods said he didn’t recall speaking individually with DNC Chairman Donald Fowler or DNC Finance Chairman Marvin Rosen, who also attended.

Another participant, BankAmerica Corp. Chairman Richard M. Rosenberg, recalls that the meeting ``dealt entirely with banking and economic issues,″ said his spokesman, John Keane.

NationsBank gave $53,650 to national Democratic Party committees in September and October of 1996, according to Federal Election Commission records. BankAmerica gave the Democrats more than $55,000 over the two years leading up to the election. But some banks represented at the meeting gave primarily to Republicans.

In addition to lists of guests at the coffee meetings, the White House also released documents that offer a glimpse of how administration officials planned to use the office of the presidency to aid the campaign.

Offer supporters ``unprecedented access to the White House and key administration decision-makers,″ one document said.

The documents, most written by officials within the White House early in 1996, lay out plans for using presidential appearances and Cabinet members to help win votes and financial contributions from several ethnic groups.

In addition to the Asian Pacific American program _ which sparked a Justice Department investigation because of contributions from foreign companies and individuals _ other outreach plans targeted blacks, Hispanics, Jews, the handicapped and ``ethnic Americans,″ primarily people of European descent.

The plans, ordered by then-deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, were written by employees of the White House Office of Public Liaison and the Labor Department with help from Democratic National Committee staff and members of ``working groups″ set up to focus on specific ethnic groups.

The plans were overseen by Alexis Herman, head of the liaison office and now Clinton’s nominee for labor secretary. Herman’s office also is the unit that invited banking regulator Ludwig to the meeting with the bankers.

Davis said the fund-raising section of the Asian American outreach plan was written by John Huang, the Democratic fund-raiser at the center of the controversy over foreign-linked donations. It resembled a document Huang later prepared for the Democratic Party, including its goal of raising $7 million from Asian Pacific Americans.

The Washington Post reported in Saturday’s edition that Huang’s superior at Commerce, Jeffrey E. Garten, had sent a memo sent to a top department official questioning Huang’s competence to handle trade issues involving Asia, saying that Huang was not ``up to handling Asia in any way, shape or form.″

Davis said the documents handed out to reporters Friday also were sent to Senate committees, including the Labor Committee that will consider Herman’s nomination and another committee investigating fund-raising practices.

The strategic plans were provided to the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign, White House officials said.

Davis said White House and other administration officials were careful to stay within the bounds of law. The Hatch Act allows presidential appointees to engage in political activity so long as the campaign pays reimbursement for any government resources used.

Although the written plans discussed fund-raising strategies, Davis said, ``There was no fund-raising activity organized by the White House or the OPL (Office of Public Liaison).″