Sorry you missed the Vice President…. I know [you] will give $100K when the President vetoes tort reform, but we really need it now. Please send ASAP if possible.
So said a Dec. 13, 1995, "call sheet" in which a Democratic National Committee staffer suggested what DNC Chairman Donald Fowler should say to multimillionaire Texas trial lawyer Walter Umphrey. This little gem has Al Gore’s Republican critics salivating once again over the prospect of implicating him in a crime. Not just dialing for dollars from the wrong phone, sleazy fund raising, or Clintonesque deceptions this time, but a quid pro quo-exchanging an official act for money-that might convert a garden-variety campaign contribution into bribery or extortion.
Forget it. Sure, the Clinton Justice Department will "investigate" Gore yet again. But it won’t prosecute. Nor should it. Nobody will ever find proof that Gore, or any other sophisticated politician, overtly promised an official act in return for a contribution. But facts already on the public record illustrate the phoniness of two key claims made by New Populist Gore: that he wants to drive big money out of politics, and that he will fight "efforts by powerful interests to take advantage of the American people."
That’s the real message behind the two call sheets prepared in late 1995 by DNC staffer Erica Payne. The background: Gore had flown to Houston on Nov. 28, 1995, for a cozy dinner with a handful of the richest lawyers in Texas. They were greatly concerned about a tort reform bill to limit supposedly excessive awards in personal injury lawsuits; with significant support from moderate Democrats, it was on its way toward passing Congress. President Clinton had suggested he might support a bipartisan compromise, depending on the details.
The first call sheet, prepared for Gore two days after the dinner, noted that Umphrey "is closely following tort reform" and advised asking him for $100,000 to help finance DNC television commercials. The second, prepared for Fowler two weeks later, suggested a script (quoted above) implying that Umphrey had recently promised to contribute only if and when Clinton vetoed tort reform. Clinton did so five months later, on May 2, 1996. That was two days after Umphrey had forked over the first $7,500 of what was to be $47,500 in 1996 contributions to the DNC. Other trial lawyers were similarly generous.
Although the Dec. 13 call sheet does exude an aroma of quid pro quo, it does not come close to proving Gore (or anyone) guilty of a crime. Gore and Fowler said they did not recall calling Umphrey, who in turn did not recall "any of that." If he solicited Umphrey, Fowler added, he would never have made such an "unwise" pitch. Nobody has said that Gore ever saw the Dec. 13 call sheet. Even if Gore or Fowler in fact made a crude pitch to Umphrey, any aides within earshot would recall nothing incriminating (or crude)-not after their recollections had been massaged by lawyers specializing in the orchestration of not-provably-criminal cover-ups. And any witness who strayed off the reservation would be isolated and smeared as a liar in cahoots with the vast right-wing conspiracy.
Leaving nothing to chance, Umphrey’s attorney (the redoubtable Michael E. Tigar) not only denied any quid pro quo but also implied that even if Umphrey’s contribution was contingent on a Clinton veto, the whole business was perfectly legal: "Tying campaign contributions to legislative or executive action has never been illegal in the United States unless there is proof that the public official extorts the money by threatening to give or withhold action based on the contributions."
Besides, the idea that Gore or Fowler would have discussed a direct quid pro quo with Umphrey is a bit implausible. Why be so heavy-handed? Even the most corrupt politicians and contributors know that they can easily get campaign money and political influence, respectively, through an elaborate process of nods and winks (and their telephonic equivalents), without saying anything incriminating.
So Gore’s critics would do well to stop chasing the chimera of criminality and focus on the campaign issue staring them in the face: While posing as a crusader for taking special-interest money out of politics, and as a champion of ordinary working people and consumers against "the powerful," Gore has been one of the most shameless solicitors of special-interest money ever to seek the presidency-in this case, from trial lawyers who have enriched themselves at consumers’ expense.
Whether or not the Umphrey call sheets were used in soliciting Umphrey, they exemplify the anything-goes attitude that has permeated Clinton-Gore fund raising-and they help illustrate the emptiness of Gore’s commitment to campaign finance reform. It may be true (as Gore says) that candidates who want to purge money from politics must first raise enough to get elected. But those who seem sincere, such as Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., avoid the balder forms of solicitation and influence-peddling. Not Al Gore. He dialed for dollars from the White House in 1995 and 1996. He mocks the sincerity of his recent complaints about Hollywood’s marketing of violent videos to children by raking in bucks at glitzy parties thrown by people who market violent videos to kids. And he jets around the country courting rich trial lawyers.
The results have been impressive. The five lawyers (including Umphrey) who collected $3.3 billion for helping Texas win a $17 billion settlement from the tobacco industry in 1998 have given more than $3.9 million to Democrats since Clinton’s May 2, 1996, veto. That’s up from $750,000 during the preceding four years-but still only about one one-thousandth of the fees reaped by the Texas Five from the tobacco settlement.
Meanwhile, lawyers as a group have given Democrats more than $44 million during the 2000 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s more than double the $21 million that lawyers (including well-heeled corporate types) have given Republicans. It’s nearly 10 times as much as the tobacco industry has given Republicans.
Does anyone believe that if elected, Gore would purge trial-lawyer money from politics and put an end to the influence-peddling in which he engages so assiduously? More likely he would count on congressional Democrats to deep-six campaign finance reform again, as they did (while blaming Republicans) after the 1992 election. In the unlikely event that Congress bans the much-lamented "soft-money" contributions to political parties that Gore is busy collecting now, people such as Umphrey (and other special interests) could easily continue to invest in candidates like Gore simply by moving their money into "issue ads" praising their favorites and trashing their opponents. Gore would then, no doubt, clamor for a ban on issue ads, too. But he must know that any effort to so drastically restrict political speech would stall in Congress or be struck down by the Supreme Court.
Now consider what lawyers such as Umphrey sometimes do for-or to-the consumers they purport to protect. To be sure, in some cases such lawyers win needed compensation for injured people, expose defective products, and provide healthy financial incentives for businesses to make products safer. But those are not the kinds of cases that made Umphrey and many other trial lawyers so rich that they may soon surpass labor unions as the Democrats’ biggest donors.
The effect of the 1998 tobacco deal-in which the companies agreed to pay $246 billion (including the $17 billion to Texas) into the 50 state treasuries over 25 years-was neither to punish the companies (which raised prices enough to cover the costs of the settlement and increase profits too) nor to compensate big tobacco’s supposed victims (who got nothing). The deal’s effect was to impose a kind of tax on those victims and millions of other smokers. (See NJ, 7/29/00, p. 2439.) Since most smokers have below-average incomes, this is a highly regressive tax-far more regressive than anything proposed by Republicans in recent memory. The states are spending their share of the take on programs of no particular value to smokers. And the main beneficiaries are the trial lawyers-most of them Gore moneymen-who cooked up the litigation and are reaping billions in fees.
After Clinton’s May 2, 1996, veto, a Democratic Senator who supported tort reform complained that the President had bowed to "a small group of people who are deeply invested in the status quo, who have worked the system very effectively and have had a disproportionate effect." The Senator was Joseph Lieberman.