In testimony during the Senate campaign fund-raising hearings, former Democratic Chairman Donald L. Fowler on Tuesday accepted some responsibility for the scandal that exploded at the Democratic National Committee last year but laid a portion of the blame at the gates of the White House, where presidential adviser Harold M. Ickes became a de facto party chairman.
Describing his relationship with Ickes as one of “dynamic tension,” Fowler said the deputy White House chief of staff essentially ran the DNC fund-raising operation, overruling Fowler.
“I did feel that he was involved in the management of the DNC in a fashion that I didn’t appreciate,” Fowler said in his deposition, remarks that he repeated Tuesday.
The former chairman of the problem-plagued DNC insisted there was no intentional effort by anyone at the Democratic Party or the White House to raise foreign money or otherwise skirt federal election laws.
“If any member of our staff or anyone else associated with our fundraising efforts did things that were illegal or unethical, they did so in violation of our policies,” Fowler said. “Our vetting was deficient, but our purpose and our values were good and proper.”
Those values, however, came under sharp attack by Republican members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, who produced documents portraying Fowler as so eager to raise money that he made questionable political judgments.
In helping Democratic donor Roger Tamraz push a controversial oil pipeline project with President Clinton and other White House officials, Fowler ignored stern warnings from national security advisers and his own staff about the trustworthiness of Tamraz, records show. Fowler arranged White House access for Tamraz even as national security aides put Tamraz on a “watch list” to keep him away from top administration officials.
After Fowler testified that he did not recall contacting the CIA on behalf of Tamraz, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, unveiled previously classified CIA documents showing that Fowler twice contacted a CIA agent on Tamraz’s behalf.
“Does that refresh your recollection, Mr. Fowler?” Thompson asked.
“Not in the least,” Fowler shot back.
Fowler argued that it was part of his job as party chairman to help major contributors gain access to the administration. He said a DNC policy banning fund-raisers from contacting government officials on behalf of donors did not apply to the chairman.
It was up to the White House, Fowler testified, to ultimately decide who received “face time” with the president.
Tamraz, who gave at least $300,000 to Democratic campaigns during the 1996 election cycle, was one of those to whom Fowler paid attention.
Fowler’s handwritten notes from a July 1995 meeting with Tamraz indicate that the Lebanese-American businessman provided Fowler with names of two people to call on Tamraz’s behalf - Sheila Heslin at the National Security Council and a CIA agent named “Bob.”
Fowler testified that he recalled telephoning the National Security Council to check on Tamraz’s status, but said he has no recollection of ever calling “Bob,” an undercover agent whose last name was redacted from documents.
“I have no memory of that,” Fowler testified, acknowledging that “memory is fallible.”
Fowler said he was aware of concerns within the administration about Tamraz. He said he recalled reviewing a Sept. 13, 1995, memo from Gore’s national security adviser, Leon Fuerth, warning of Tamraz’s “shady and untrustworthy reputation” in pushing an oil project that is “commercially questionable at best.”
But Fowler said he did not remember seeing an earlier memo from one of his own aides, Alejandra Y. Castillo, saying Tamraz’s business dealings are “full of significant financial and ethical troubles.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT? The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee today will question Joseph Sandler, the Democratic National Committee’s general counsel, about donations solicited by Vice President Al Gore.