By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
So this guy, David Rosen, has to put on a political fundraiser for his boss, a certain would-be junior senator from New York. And he's sweating, because the whole affair, a Hollywood tribute to the would-be senator's husband, Bill, is threatening to become so expensive that it can only lose money.
So Rosen takes the actual cost of the eventmore than $1.1 million, donated by another guy, Peter Paul, a thrice-convicted felonand marks it down in the campaign's federal finance reports to about $400,000.
Or so prosecutors were saying last week in Los Angeles, as they presented their case against the former aide to Hillary Clinton. Rosen, the senator's finance director in 2000, is accused of fudging the books over a lavish fundraiser at a Brentwood mansion back when Clinton was a candidate. He has pleaded not guilty. The trial opened on May 10, and is continuing this week, with a much anticipated appearance by Rosen on the witness stand.
Prosecutors have said openly that the case has nothing to do with Clinton herself, yet it has given her enemies new ammunition. First came the speculation over what she'd known about the costs of the August 2000 event, which featured the likes of Cher and Diana Ross. Then came the calls for a Senate ethics investigation. Earlier this month, a taped conversation between Rosen and another fundraiser was leaked to the press, capturing insinuations that he's taking the fall for the senator. Clinton's friends began talking about a smoking gun.
Her foes, meanwhile, could hardly contain themselves. As one blogger on redstate.org put it just before the trial, "The evidence is piling up so high against the junior senator from New York these days that it's hard to imagine that even the queen of Teflon will be able to escape unscathed."
Clearly the stakes are high for Rosen, who is charged with three counts of causing false reports to be filed with the Federal Election Commission. Prosecutors allege he purposely underreported the gala's expenses; that cost was underwritten by Peter Paul, who's now awaiting sentencing on stock fraud. Prosecutors say Rosen's alleged maneuver would mean that some $800,000 would have been freed up for so-called hard-money contributions.
The particulars are hard to follow, but the penalties are clear.
If proven, this could be a "serious violation of campaign finance laws," says Larry Noble, of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. Rosen faces a maximum of 15 years in jail and $750,000 in fines.
For those looking to sully Clinton, the proceedings have yielded little dirt. Not only have prosecutors said the senator and her campaign aren't involved, but last Tuesday they threw out the supposedly damning tape, saying they wouldn't introduce it or ask witnesses about it.
Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, in Washington, D.C., has highlighted various scandals involving the Clinton White House over the years; he recently filed papers with the Senate ethics committee claiming that Hillary must have known Rosen's filings were false. But watching the trial so far, he says, "You'd think the government was aiming to lose the case, what with the choices it's made."
The anticlimactic proceedings haven't necessarily stopped Republicans and other conservatives from making the most of this trial. Just last week, for instance, the Stop Her Now effort took one of its first shots at Clinton's unofficial 2008 presidential campaign by sending out an e-mail call for money to help expose the truth about the Hollywood gala. "STOP HER NOW knows that the American people are not stupid," the message trumpeted, "and they can see this for what it is, another example of Hillary Clinton behaving as though the rules don't apply to her."
Hillary haters were also posting solicitations on right-wing bulletin boards and political chat rooms, seeking volunteers to videotape Rosen and his lawyers entering and exiting the L.A. courthouse, or to shoot footage "anywhere that Hillary appears in public." The outtakes are expected to make for dramatic images in a documentary on what's being billed in one post on freerepublic.com as "the biggest campaign fraud in history."
Judicial Watch's Fitton, who traveled to L.A. to watch the trial firsthand, continues to press the conspiracy theory. He says he's heard enough evidence that Rosen knew about the gala's spiraling costs to convince him that the aide could not have acted alone. The senator, he argues, had to be complicit in the schemea claim echoed in his group's ethics complaint. That document relies for evidence on the word of Paul, who is suing Clinton, her husband, and Rosen partly on claims that Bill reneged on a promise to do business with his media company in exchange for footing the fundraiser's bill.
"She has perpetrated this fraud on the Senate, the FEC, and the American people," Fitton says, shrugging off the prosecutors' statements proclaiming Clinton's innocence. "That doesn't mean there isn't any evidence she was involved," he argues. "It just means they are keeping the evidence out."
For Republicans, it seems, the Rosen trial couldn't have come at a better time. Shaun Bowler, a University of California political science professor who has followed the case, thinks the GOP would have been delighted to see any prominent Democrat caught up in a campaign finance scandal. After all, he notes, "It gives Republicans some way to distract attention from Tom DeLay." (The avowedly nonpartisan Judicial Watchto its credithas gone after DeLay for years, and is comparing the Rosen case to the charges of campaign finance irregularities swirling around the House majority leader these days.)