In the early 1880s, Washington newspapers routinely carried
classified ads that said something like this:
"WANTED - Government job. Will remit 10 percent of salary as
campaign contribution to any politician who secures me a position."
The spread of such blatant kickbacks outraged one of the
era's most eloquent US legislators, Sen. George H. Pendleton (D) of
Ohio. His vehement denunciation of the practice eventually prodded
Congress into passing the Pendleton Act, in 1883. This
anticorruption bill removed many government jobs from patronage
ranks, set up the modern US civil service - and outlawed the
solicitation of campaign cash on federal property.
Today, over a century after its passage, the Pendleton Act
has suddenly been transformed from a dusty old statute to a vital
point of interest. It's at the center of charges that Vice
President Al Gore, and perhaps President Clinton, may have broken
the law by making fund-raising calls from their White House offices.
But even as the Justice Department ratchets up its phone call
investigation, experts continue to debate the meaning of the
Pendleton law in the modern world. Telecommunications has made
"place" a fungible concept, for instance. In a fund-raising phone
call, where does actual solicitation occur?
And how serious is this dialing-for-dollars probe, anyway?
Some experts claim it's picayune stuff - while the real outrage,
the easy flow of millions of dollars of soft money into US
politics, remains largely unregulated.
"We should be focusing, not on where and when Gore made phone
calls, but on the fact that he needed to make them at all," says
Robert Mutch, a political scientist and author of a history of US
The legal evaluation of Mr. Gore's phone calls jumped to a
new level last Friday when Attorney General Janet Reno opened a
90-day review of the vice president's conduct. By the end of the
three-month period, Reno must decide whether the evidence is such
that she must take the much more serious step of recommending the
appointment of an independent counsel.
On Friday the Justice Department announced the beginning of a
separate, 30-day probe into the possibility that Mr. Clinton also
broke the law via White House fund-raising calls. The case against
Gore is much more fully developed, however. Gore has acknowledged
making more than 40 fund-raising calls from the White House, while
Clinton says he does not recall doing anything similar.
Clinton's role in raising cash from the Oval Office is
expected to be one of the primary topics of an appearance by former
Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes before a Senate panel today. …