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 event—more than $1.1 million, donated by another guy, Peter Paul, a thrice-convicted felon—and 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 scheme—a 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 Watch—to its credit—has 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.)
Now, right-wingers get to remind people of all the Clinton White House scandals—Travelgate, Whitewater, Webster Hubbell. “This makes the ‘Hillary as piñata’ act brand-new again,” Bowler says.
To Clinton’s backers, of course, this sounds a lot like the vast right-wing conspiracy saddling up again. And the only reason for Republicans’ obsession with the Rosen trial, they argue, is the fear that the senator would make a formidable presidential contender. Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on President Clinton’s 1996 re-election bid, sums it up this way: “It’s national politics. The right-wingers want to try to do anything they can to stop her from being elected president.”
Then again, he adds, “I’d be surprised if her people didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Party Gone Out of Bounds
The Los Angeles trial of David Rosen, Hillary Clinton’s former chief fundraiser, centers on a Hollywood bash that got a little out of control—at least with regard to expenses. Prosecutors have highlighted how celebrities like Cher demanded to be flown in by private jet, costing as much as $31,000. The tab for talent alone hit $90,000.
Another accounting of the August 12, 2000, fundraiser can be found in an ethics complaint filed against Senator Clinton by Judicial Watch, which argues that she had to have known the gala cost more than her finance chief reported. The seven-page complaint comes with another 500 pages of exhibits, including the canceled checks. The grand total topped $1.1 million. Here’s a very partial list of what it went for:
$5,309.32 to cover the Brentwood estate’s pool with Astroturf.
$4,442 for two “restroom trailers,” or portable potties.
$5,790 to print invitations.
$3,300 to deliver them all by courier.
$6,057 for a bus to shuttle guests to the estate’s front door.
$63,788.48 for Spago catering.
$10,000 for “talent coordination services,” specifically Cher’s two-song performance.
$10,400 for “awards” to present President Bill Clinton and Hillary.
$30,048.31 for performers’ travel.
$900 for three convection ovens with five racks apiece.
$72 for four fire extinguishers.
$727 for three “stand-by” men to help the guests.
$332 for the men’s “helpers.”
$279.35 for 37 plastic washtubs for the bar.
$224.75 for trash cans.
$46.50 for sugar tongs.
Hillary’s people have, so far, played it safe—working damage control by ignoring the entire matter. Clinton press aides have refused to comment on the trial’s developments. And when Capitol Hill reporters have asked Clinton about the case, she has reportedly shrugged her shoulders. Only Howard Wolfson, the senator’s adviser, has commented on the trial, saying simply that he expects Rosen will be acquitted.
“It’s a fact of life that the right will seek to use this trial for political ends,” Wolfson tells the Voice. But the senator, he adds, “has a remarkable ability to focus on the things that are important.”
Indeed, the senator’s office continues to issue one news release after another touting her latest endeavors—how she traveled to New York military bases to fight against Pentagon closures, for example, or scored federal firefighter and transportation funds for the state. She has even managed to get good press without the help of her aides. On May 14, she delivered a commencement speech at a Georgia women’s college, provoking the graduates to screams of glee and, in the words of one local news account, “mass hysteria.” And she shared a podium May 11 with Republican Newt Gingrich, to endorse legislation that would streamline record keeping in the nation’s health care system. The appearance made headlines for more than five days, overshadowing her foes’ fulminations about the trial.
Much depends, of course, on the trial’s outcome. Worst-case scenario for Clinton would be Rosen’s conviction—a real possibility in light of the number of witnesses who have testified that he knew the event’s costs were spiraling out of control, and tried to conceal them. A conviction could make for an embarrassing situation for Clinton. Says Noble, of the Center for Responsive Politics, “The campaign will have to accept the responsibility for its fundraisers.” That could include paying a fine, based on the complex formula governing the expense of campaign events.
Still, Clinton would not be the first politician who has faced such problems. Case in point: the 1996 presidential campaigns. A vice chairman of Bob Dole’s bid confessed to making $120,000 in illegal political contributions—more than half to Dole’s campaign—and received the harshest penalty ever levied in a campaign finance case at the time—six months of home confinement and $6 million in fines. Al Gore’s appearance at a Buddhist temple in L.A. that same year became symbolic of the Democratic fundraising scandal that was the subject of Senate hearings and criminal prosecutions.
“What’s run-of-the-mill is people getting into trouble,” says Allan Hoffenblum, a West Coast Republican consultant. If Rosen is convicted, he doubts that Republicans will make much out of it—not now, anyway.
“Is anybody beyond hardcore Clinton haters paying attention to this?” he asks. “No.” Then he adds, “Maybe in 2007 we’ll care.”