Big Democratic donors felt so emboldened they personally wrote the president seeking government appointments - and got them. One was invited inside the Oval Office to talk policy.
Another even managed to get a Chinese government arms dealer into a White House coffee klatch with the president.
It’s the sort of access average Americans only dream of, the very stuff that candidate Bill Clinton promised to end when he vowed to free a government “held hostage by big-money interests.”
Instead, the feverish fund-raising machine that Democrats built over the last four years tapped donors for contributions ranging from $1,000 for the first family’s legal defense to six-figure checks for the party. And now the money raisers are staring down the barrel of an intensifying criminal investigation.
To date, disclosures have revealed a sloppy fund-raising system that allowed hundreds of thousands of dollars of donations from prohibited foreign entities or dubious sources to flow into the Democrats’ coffers.
More than $2 million already has been returned by the party or the president’s legal fund. Businessmen with shadowy interests in Asia and members of obscure Buddhists sects were among the givers getting their checks back.
Unlike many of the earlier controversies to hit the administration - Whitewater, the White House travel office firings, the gathering of FBI background files - this one places the president as a central figure.
His causes benefited from the money. Old Arkansas friends are among donors causing the biggest stir. The president often hosted events that rewarded big donors with access to the White House.
So far, questions of possible legal violations have centered mostly on the donors and the fund-raisers. President Clinton is quick to note that neither he nor his senior aides stand accused of wrongdoing.
The Justice Department, which has a task force investigating the expanding fund-raising controversy, issued subpoenas last week to the White House and the legal defense fund seeking to know what presidential aides and their boss knew, and when.
Attorney General Janet Reno so far has resisted appointing an independent counsel but signaled last week that she remains open to the idea.
Republican-led investigators in both the Senate and House have begun their own inquiries.
For their part, major donors wrote personal letters directly to Clinton making specific policy requests, even seeking appointments to government jobs affording access to sensitive intelligence information.
One, John Huang, got such a high-level job at the Commerce Department. Others got plum appointments to advisory panels.
Some focused their extraordinary access to the president on trying to influence policy.
“There are certain steps that your administration might consider,” Indonesian billionaire Mochtar Riady wrote Clinton just two months after the president took office.
Riady, whose family had contributed heavily to Clinton and the Democrats, urged the president to normalize relations with Vietnam, nominate businessmen as U.S. ambassadors to Asian countries and continue economic engagement with China despite its poor human-rights record.
He also lobbied Clinton on behalf of Indonesia’s President Suharto.
Riady’s son James made numerous visits to the White House and met with the president six times. In an Oval Office session, he talked policy with Clinton.