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White House coffees often lured lobbyists

February 4, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ It was a lobbyist’s dream: A major donation to the Democrats was a ticket to coffee at the White House, a chance to raise a client’s interests with President Clinton himself.

A lobbyist for savings institutions, for example, attended a coffee last June and wrote a $15,000 check to the Democratic National Committee two days later.

He was just one of dozens of lobbyists invited to the receptions over the past two years, many of whom made commitments to raise specific amounts of money or made large donations in the same week as their visits.

In some cases, invitations to the coffees were issued by Terence McAuliffe, the chief fund-raiser for Clinton’s re-election campaign, or one of his lieutenants. McAuliffe ran at least some of the meetings, calling on those around the table to air their concerns.

Sometimes, a client rather than the lobbyist got the reward.

Jerry Connors, president of the Manufactured Housing Institute, said he was invited to a session with Clinton last March because his trade group is a client of Daniel Dutko, a prominent lobbyist and Democratic fund-raiser. The group donated to the Democrats at Dutko’s behest, he said.

``There wasn’t any direct connection between going and money. It was more indirect,″ Connors said.

Since the coffees came to light as part of the broader controversy over Democratic fund-raising practices and White House rewards to donors, much of the focus has been on corporate executives who got inside the White House.

But at least 72 registered lobbyists were also among the attendees. Some attended coffees just days before or after they, their firms or their clients gave significant amounts of money to the Democratic Party, according to Federal Election Commission records.

For instance:

_ Bob Ragan, a lobbyist for engineering firm Bechtel, attended a coffee last April 26. The day before, Bechtel had given the Democrats $5,000. A week later, the firm contributed $45,000.

_ Paul Schosberg, head of America’s Community Bankers, a trade association for savings institutions, went to a White House coffee on June 19. Two days later, federal records show, he gave $15,000 to the DNC.

_ Douglas Dority, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, attended a coffee on April 12, two days after his union had given $100,000 to the Democrats.

One Democratic fund-raiser, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said he regularly solicited contributions from Washington lobbyists who understood the money might gain them the best contact of all _ unfiltered access to the president.

At the dozens of coffees sponsored by the Democratic Party inside the presidential mansion, access was far more intimate than that provided at most fund-raising events outside the White House where large crowds make direct contact with the president nearly impossible.

``I have plenty of access because I am a friend, but also because I am a fund-raiser. The two go together,″ said Marjorie Seawell, a Denver nurse who said she has known Clinton for 16 years.

She was one of nine guests at an afternoon coffee on Sept. 8, 1995, that went on for more than an hour. The president bantered informally with the diverse group and displayed detailed knowledge of a wide range of topics.

``It was a meeting of friends and supporters,″ Seawell recalled in an interview. ``I think there also were some people he didn’t know well. He wanted for some reason to hear their opinions about things. He had very brief remarks, and then he really listened. I think it was a very productive meeting for everyone concerned.″

McAuliffe moderated the meeting, participants said.

A lobbyist for the National Association of Home Builders, Bob Bannister, brought up the issue of protecting the income tax deduction for mortgage interest, suggesting it could be a helpful issue for Clinton if the Republicans adopted a flat-tax platform at their national nominating convention.

Shelton Smith, a lawyer from Houston who is active in the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, said he asked Clinton about a Republican bill then working its way through Congress that would have limited liability lawsuits. Clinton replied that he would veto it.

When another participant disagreed, Clinton said if the bill’s sponsors would ``change three words″ in the bill, he would sign it. Those three words were ``burden of proof,″ according to some at the meeting.

Eventually, the bill underwent such shrinkage that that fight over wording became irrelevant. The bill passed, but Clinton vetoed it.

Another supporter pressed Clinton for assurances about U.S. support of Israel, and Angelo Tsakopoulos, a developer from Sacramento, Calif., told a story about how the Endangered Species Act had burdened his business.

Clinton listened and asked a few questions, and pledged to look into the matter, participants said. Last year, Tsakopoulos gave four gifts to the Democratic Party totaling $185,000.

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