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Gore's Campaign Fund-Raising Called into Question by 1882 Law

By Charles R. Babcock
The Washington Post

For years, members of Congress wanting to solicit campaign contributions have been told to troop down the street to their party campaign committees before "dialing for dollars." Some reportedly even duck out to the Capitol parking lot between votes and use a cellular phone to plead for cash.

They have done so because of an obscure law, written in 1882 and enforced only a handful of times, that prohibits federal employees from soliciting campaign donations on federal property. It was aimed at protecting federal workers from being leaned on by their bosses, but has come to be accepted practice for politicians concerned about conflicts between their official and political duties.

The law has come up for renewed discussion because of Vice President Gore's statement Monday that he made fund-raising calls to big donors from his White House office, charging them to a Democratic National Committee credit card. Gore insisted that he believed the calls were perfectly legal and that there is "no controlling legal authority" that bars the practice.

Republicans quickly pounced on Gore. The Republican Senate campaign committee issued a statement Monday demanding that Gore provide records showing that the DNC paid for the calls Gore made.

While the law itself seldom leads to prosecution, several legal experts said that Gore's admission may force Attorney General Janet Reno to seek appointment of an independent counsel because the standard for triggering the law refers only to sufficient credible evidence that a federal law has been broken by a person covered under the statute. Gore is a "covered" person.

Election law experts said Monday it is not entirely clear whether the criminal statute, intended to cover federal workers, applies to the vice president or president.

They agreed Monday that Justice Department prosecutors seldom charge a public official under the law. Officeholders usually leave federal property to make campaign solicitations anyway, they said, to avoid embarrassing questions such as those that Gore faced Monday in a nationally televised news conference.