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Senate Fund-Raising Panel Returns with Packed Agenda

By Marc Lacey
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

Senate campaign fund-raising investigators have no grainy videotape of a big donor handing over a sack of money with one hand and snatching a government contract with the other. Nor have they unearthed a smoking-gun memo in which a White House official spells out a quid pro quo in damning black ink.

Nonetheless, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is seeking to build a case that some major contributors to the Democratic National Committee were not acting out of high-minded principle when they wrote their checks; instead, they expected, and sometimes received, the ear of top policy-makers and favorable government action.

Nearing the end of a monthlong intermission, the committee's hearings resume after Labor Day with a crowded agenda that will include the controversial Buddhist temple fund-raiser attended by Vice President Al Gore and more detail on the climate inside the White House during last year's presidential money chase.

Those expected to be questioned about White House coffee klatches, Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers and other fund-raising methods are former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes; Maggie Williams, former chief of staff to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton; and former DNC Chairman Don Fowler.

"Why were people getting in (to the White House) who shouldn't have been?" a Senate investigator asked, summarizing the questions to be raised in the coming weeks. "How was this environment created that allowed these things that stink to high heaven to happen? We'll look at the ways that the White House was used as a money-making machine. And we'll take a look at some of these seamier instances, what we call the quid pro quos."

The refrain from most politicians is that donors give to elected officials who already support their positions, not to influence lawmakers to take particular actions. And anyway, they argue, so many checks are written by so many givers that governmental decision-making remains above the fray of fund-raising.

President Clinton says contributors enjoy no special influence over policy decisions made by his administration.

Republicans plan to challenge those remarks, focusing on cases - first raised by the news media - involving everything from bananas to nursing homes to a failed coup attempt in Paraguay.

The banana dispute began in 1993, when the European Union implemented trade policies favoring banana growers in the former European colonies of the Caribbean over the powerhouse U.S. banana concerns such as Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte, which operate in Latin America.

Cincinnati-based Chiquita cried the loudest, and the U.S. trade representative took its fight to the World Trade Organization, which issued a report favoring Chiquita's stance.

Senate investigators are interested in the hefty political contributions from business magnate Carl Lindner, who has given the Democratic Party more than $1 million in corporate and individual contributions in recent years and was one of the donors rewarded with an overnight stay in the Lincoln Bedroom. Lindner, who runs the company that oversees Chiquita, pushed his position in meetings with former U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor.

The Senate in early August issued subpoenas to Lindner and Chiquita seeking documents on the matter. Kantor, who was not subpoenaed, insists that the decision was made on its merits, was in line with positions taken by the Reagan and Bush administrations years before, and did not go as far as Chiquita would have liked.

Investigators also are trying to determine whether there were any connections between nursing home regulations imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services and Alan Solomont, a major Democratic contributor whose ADS Management Co. runs a large chain of nursing homes. They have subpoenaed Solomont - now the DNC's finance chairman - who had meetings with HHS Secretary Donna Shalala to press for less stringent nursing home rules.

Investigators also are looking into reports that Nathan Landow, a longtime Gore fund-raiser, sought a lobbying contract with the Cheyenne-Arapaho Indians of Oklahoma to help them recover tribal lands. Tribal leaders have said Landow told them they would not get their land back if they did not hire Landow and Knight, who were not retained.

Senate subpoenas have also gone to Future Tech International, a Miami-based computer company, and its president, Mark Jimenez.