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Reno grilled by House; more Clinton videos surface

By Karen GulloAssociated Press Published: October 16, 1997 12:00 AM

"Many of you have been very generous, I thank you for it," Clinton told donors at a May 21, 1996, dinner at the White House. But, he quickly adds, "This thing could get away from us in a hurry."

The tapes were being viewed as Attorney General Janet Reno was grilled at a House hearing Wednesday for her handling of the fund-raising probe.

In a sometimes combative session before the House Judiciary Committee, she revealed that decisions on closing off areas of investigation would be made both by her and FBI Director Louis Freeh.

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But Republicans said she was caught in a conflict of interest and were adamant that she had no choice but to seek an independent counsel to investigate White House fund-raising activities.

Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the committee, and other Republicans insisted she had more than enough evidence to invoke the 1978 Independent Counsel Act, created to avoid conflicts of interest when senior officials were under investigation.

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Reno denied such a conflict existed and also said she had not found "specific and credible" evidence of wrongdoing by high government officials, another criteria that would trigger an independent counsel. She made clear she will not be pushed into an unwarranted decision.

More than 100 hours of long-sought tapes of dinners at swanky hotels, White House breakfasts and Saturday radio addresses in the Oval Office were turned over by the White House to Republican investigators Tuesday and Wednesday.

In several shown to reporters in a makeshift screening room at the Old Executive Office Building, Clinton appears alongside Charlie Trie, John Huang, James Riady, Johnny Chung and other Democratic fund-raisers whose activities in the 1996 election thrust their party into controversy.

Trie has left the country, Huang has cited his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to be interviewed by investigators and Chung won't cooperate in the probe without a grant of immunity. But the tapes showed that when Clinton was drumming up financial support for his campaign, the three were welcome in the president's fund-raising circle and acknowledged for their loyalty.

In one clip among the 158 events detailed on the tapes, Clinton is shown hailing Huang as "my good friend." In another, he reminisces with donors about his two-decade friendship with Trie, an Arkansas restaurateur who became a Washington fund-raiser.

"Soon it will be 20 years since I had my first meal with Charlie Trie," Clinton said to a hotel room full of donors on May, 19, 1996. "At the time, neither one of us could afford the ticket to this dinner."

Months later the Democratic Party would be forced to return $3 million in donations _ most of it raised by Huang or Trie _ because of concerns the money came from foreign or other improper sources.

Chung got a hug from the president when he visited the White House in March 1995 with six Chinese officials in tow to see Clinton's weekly radio address. Chung has said that meeting occurred after he handed a $50,000 check to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's then-chief of staff in the White House.

And the tapes show James Riady, a wealthy businessman from Indonesia whose family has made big contributions to the Democrats, chatting with Clinton in the White House after a radio address in September 1994. The cameraman stopped recording at that point, however, and their conversation wasn't caught on tape.

The tapes viewed by reporters did not show Clinton making explicit appeals for money at events inside or outside the White House. Senate investigators had been hoping that the tapes would reveal whether Clinton did just that.

White House special counsel Lanny Davis, who moderated the presentation to reporters, said, "These events, including those at the White House, confirm what we have always said, that these events were legal and proper."

In all, the White House released 66 video tapes and 121 audio tapes, mostly of the same events caught on camera.

The tapes involved 158 events, 27 of which were at the White House. One unidentified White House dinner guest asked the president's support for an oil pipeline project in the Black Sea. Clinton did not respond. Federal law prohibits soliciting donors in government offices.

Many in attendance at the events on the tapes were "soft money" donors whose contributions to the party can be unlimited in size but cannot be used directly to assist a federal candidate such as Clinton.

At the time, the party was using soft money to run a massive ad campaign to define issues. At the May 21, 1996, White House event, however, Clinton credits the ads for benefiting his own campaign.

"The fact that we have been able to finance this long-running television campaign where we have been always framing the issues ... has been central to the position I now enjoy in the polls," Clinton told donors.

One area that congressional investigators are now probing is whether the White House directed the soft-money ad campaign to benefit Clinton despite the legal prohibition.

Davis said the Democratic Party ads were "absolutely legal."

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