Clark Campaign Reconsiders Paid Speeches

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Strategists involved in retired Gen. Wesley Clark's presidential campaign are discussing whether he should give up making paid speeches during his run for office, according to sources close to the campaign. Here's an example of why: At a speech at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, TX, on Sept. 29th, Clark talked about his life and did a book-signing, avoiding discussion of his campaign. But in the question and answer session after the speech, "Most of the questions were about his candidacy, and he answered them," said Keith Lamb, associate vice-president for student affairs. Clark also took questions about the campaign during a brief press conference, according to students who attended.  

In disucussing his campaign, Clark defended his announced party affiliation. "What I believe in and what I stand for, the Republican Party doesn't believe in," Clark said during the question-and-answer session, according to newspaper coverage of the event. "We believe in helping people and when we looked around America, we found there was one party that believes like that, and there was one party that didn't. I'm pro-choice, I'm pro-affirmative action, I'm pro helping people, I'm pro-jobs, I'm pro-environment."

That could be a problem under Federal Election Commission regulations, which bar a candidate from being paid by corporations, universities or labor unions for campaign events. The payment —$25,000 in the case of Midwestern State — could be considered an illegal contribution to Clark's nascent campaign if the FEC found that the speech and related activity dealt with his candidacy in any but the most incidental of ways, said veteran campaign finance lawyer Ken Gross. The potential problem first surfaced in a Washington Post story Wednesday about a speech Clark made at DePauw University in Indiana on Sept. 23, where he also discussed his campaign, according to people who attended.      

According to Midwestern State University vice-president Howard Farrell, Clark "was asked what he would do if he was president on a couple of issues — one question was on the budget, and another was on military affairs, and there may have been more. He answered those." The university did not record the speech.     

Student Jason Biggs said a group of military veterans also wanted to know what he would do about their benefits. "Of course he said he'd take care of them," said Biggs.       "As long as he does the speeches within the four corners of what the FEC allows, they're okay," said Clark campaign general counsel William Oldaker. But the problem is that the law is not clearcut on this issue. In an advisory opinion issued to Republican candidate David Duke's campaign in 1992, the FEC said that if Duke discussed his campaign or other candidates "during the speech or during any question and answer period" the speech would take on the appearance of "one that is for the purpose of influencing a federal election."    

That's why campaign operatives have discussed among themselves and with Clark the notion of suspending his speeches. "It makes everyone nervous," said one aide. "But this is what he's done to make a living, and there's nothing in the regs that says you have to give up making a living." Clark has resigned from most, if not all, his corporate boards, which was another source of income. We'll know more soon; Oldaker said Clark would file a financial disclosure statement with the FEC within two to three weeks.