Gore's Coffee Stains

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All Al Gore really needed to know about April 18, 2000, was summed up in his horoscope that morning. "Questions concerning legal affairs, reputation, marital status loom large," read the Washington Post's astrology column. "You could be forced into a corner; be ready with answers based on research." For once, the stars were right. Over four hours that day, federal prosecutor Robert Conrad fired questions at the Vice President about his role in the 1996 campaign-finance scandal. The afternoon session in the vice-presidential mansion was edgy and sometimes contentious. But Gore told reporters days later, "I, of course, answered every question fully and completely."

His inquisitor didn't agree. Last week Republicans on Capitol Hill leaked word that Conrad, head of the Justice Department's campaign-finance task force, has recommended that Attorney General Janet Reno appoint a special counsel to probe whether some of Gore's responses were untruthful. Reno's decision could be weeks away, but the disclosure that she is once again considering a larger investigation of Gore comes at a bad time for a candidate with a flagging campaign.

Just five months before the presidential elections, the whole ugly 1996 campaign-finance mess has come washing back, along with memories of fund raisers John Huang and Maria Hsia, the Buddhist-temple incident and the never fully answered question of how foreign money wound up in Democratic Party accounts to help the Clinton White House win re-election in 1996. Which is why the Gore campaign battled right back last week. "We're not going to take this lying down," a Gore staff member said hours after the news broke on Thursday. On Friday Gore released the transcript of the entire April 18 ordeal. Give him points for that. "I think the truth is my friend in this," Gore said.

But is it? The Gore in the transcript could have learned a lot from the astrologers, plagued as he seemed to be by faulty memory, defensiveness and--a defense lawyer's nightmare--a tendency toward needlessly expansive, rambling responses that sometimes contradicted his earlier words. And Gore's body language, which isn't conveyed in the transcript, helped convince Conrad that the Veep might be fudging; the prosecutor has mentioned to several people that Gore was sweating profusely. Never mind that Gore is often a prolific perspirer--the impression Conrad took away was that Gore had something to really sweat about.

Take the discussion of the infamous White House coffees of 1995-96, events that were scheduled to reward and grease soft-money donors to the Democratic Party as Clinton and Gore ran for re-election. "I may have attended one," Gore told Conrad. "It was certainly not my understanding that they were fund-raising events," he said. Echoing Clinton's infamous parsing of the verb "is," Gore says, "Well, let me define the term 'raising.'" And as for the notion that there might have been a price tag attached to attending a coffee, Gore was outraged. "Absolutely not," he said. "And it is my belief that that would have been considered wildly inappropriate, if not worse."

Two days later, Gore lawyer James Neal sent Conrad a letter amending his answer: Gore's schedule reflects that he was scheduled to attend four White House coffees, Neal writes, and "the Vice President hosted approximately 21 coffees in the Old Executive Office Building. He did not understand your question to include OEOB coffees." (Congressional investigators say Gore held 23 coffees of his own and went to eight with Clinton.) Neal does not amend the record otherwise, though investigators have found--as Conrad pointed out to Gore--that donors gave a total of $7.7 million within a month of their attendance at a coffee. And the notion that Gore knew of no connection between the coffees and the dollars is almost impossible to believe. In talking points prepared for Gore by former top aides Ron Klain and David Strauss for a meeting Gore says he never attended, Gore is advised to argue that he and Clinton could raise the huge sums of money that would be required to put an early ad campaign on the air by doing things like sipping java with folks with big wallets: "So we can raise the money--BUT ONLY if the President and I actually do the events, the calls, the coffees, etc."

The interview with Conrad was the fifth time Gore had been questioned by the task force but the first time he was asked about the April 1996 luncheon at a Buddhist temple outside Los Angeles. Gore has repeatedly described it not as a fund raiser but as "community outreach" and, later, as a "finance-related" event. In the interview, Conrad was treated to a Gore lecture on how the two terms aren't contradictory. Confronted by Conrad with party memos that seemed to undercut his story, Gore snapped back, "I sure as hell did not have any conversations with anyone saying, 'This is a fund-raising event.'" Gore ally Hsia was convicted in March in connection with straw contributions at the temple event, though Gore is not alleged to have known of her actions. Conrad asked Gore about other matters, including his relationship with Huang and others and his knowledge of improperly archived e-mails, the latest issue to be seized upon by the G.O.P. (a year's worth of Gore's e-mail appears to be missing).

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