The White House E-Mail Trail

The 1996 e-mail to Vice President Gore raised a ticklish issue. Carter Eskew, Gore's long-time friend and political consultant, wanted to send the vice president a memo. But should Eskew mail them directly to Gore's computer at the White House? "Reminder," wrote a helpful aide on Feb. 22, 1996, about Eskew's request. "All Internet e-mails are recorded on the White House computers ... The only way not to have your e-mails backed up on government computers would be to get a Clinton/Gore computer in your office and set it up for private e-mails. How do you want to proceed?"

As it happens, that e-mail--written by a Gore staffer named Jose Velasco--was backed up on government computers. And last week, more than four years after the fact, it was finally turned over to Congressional investigators, creating a new layer of mystery to a dispute about the fate of hundreds of thousands of long-missing White House e-mails. Republicans have contended for months that the White House-and Gore's office in particular-have stonewalled government inquiries by failing to turn over crucial e-mails that could shed light on campaign fundraising and other White House scandals. The e-mail about Eskew's request-recently reconstructed by FBI computer specialists-only makes that point, they say. "This shows that from the beginning, people were talking about how to avoid the scrutiny of having their e-mails read by investigators," says James Wilson, chief counsel to the House Government Reform Committee. Why else, Wilson asks, would aides be talking about sending "private e-mails" that wouldn't be "backed up on government computers?"

White House aides offer a somewhat different interpretation, insisting that the Velasco e-mail only demonstrates that Gore's advisors were extra careful about how they swapped political advice and discussed their fundraising practices. A White House aide suggested that Gore's staffer Velasco was concerned about not using government computers for political purposes, although the aide conceded that Velasco's email "certainly could have been phrased better." Moreover, in the Eskew matter, there was apparently never any e-mail that needed to be concealed. "I never sent it," Eskew said.

Complaints that Bill Clinton and Al Gore had crossed the line in their use of the White House in raising campaign cash four years ago led to a rash of campaign-finance-related investigations that continue to bedevil the Democrats to this day. Having subpoenaed all White House documents-including any e-mails-years ago, Congressional and Justice Department investigators were stunned to learn only this year that hundreds of thousands hadn't been turned over-purportedly because of a computer "glitch" that failed to contemporaneously record the e-mails on back-up tapes. After laborious negotiations with Justice and a federal judge, the White House only this summer began turning over hard drives that have allowed FBI computer specialists to begin reconstructing e-mails that are relevant to the inquiries.

As part of that process, the first batch-more than two dozen campaign fundraising e-mails sent or received by the vice president's staffers-were released by the White House late on Friday. Some of these show a freewheeling bluntness about White House political practices that do not exactly match the carefully worded circumlocutions of the president and Gore's public statements on the matter.

Consider the matter of the White House coffees. Between November, 1995, and August, 1996, the White House organized 103 such events, most of those in the White House map room, with guests contributing a total of $26.4 million to the Democratic Party. Some $7.7 million of that was donated by guests within one month of attending a coffee. But when Gore (who hosted 23 of these events and joined Clinton at eight others) was questioned about the coffees by Justice Department prosecutors last April, he resolutely disputed a suggestion by Robert Conrad-chief of the department's campaign finance task force-that the coffees were "fundraising tools."

"They were for the President to meet with people who were interested in supporting his policies and his politics," Gore said when Conrad asked him the purpose of the coffees. "It was certainly not my understanding that they were fund-raising events."

But Gore's own staffers understood the coffees a little differently, routinely referring to their potential for raising money. "There are FR coffees right?" Karen Skelton, Gore's chief political aide inside the White House, wrote in an Apr. 23, 1996 e-mail on the subject of the "coffee list." A Congressional investigator said the letters "FR" clearly refer to "fundraiser," although a White House aide suggested they could also mean "finance related." As part of a May 8, 1996 exchange with another Gore staffer about the kind of people who should be invited, Skelton wrote: "Yes, but keep in mind that these people must be justifiable on the basis of what they give us down the line." And yet another e-mail discusses a "well-off" Taiwanese-American businessman named George Chang who, according to a Gore staffer named Joseph Eyer, "is trying to arrange a POTUS (President of the United States) coffee through the DNC, as well as a POTUS interview with a Taiwinese (sic) reporter. In return for the DNC's efforts, Chang has promised to raise $250,000."

If those e-mails sound like Gore's people saw the coffees as a mechanism to rake in campaign cash rather than discuss "policy," a Gore spokesman insists that they are still consistent with the vice president's own testimony on the subject. Kennedy notes that on seven separate occasions during his Apr. 18, 2000 interview by the Justice task force, Gore stated that he always recognized that coffee participants could get solicited for campaign contributions at some point after the event. In any case, another White House staffer said that when Gore denied that the coffees were fundraising events, he was only saying what he "understood the situation to be at the time." As for the Chang missive, White House aides said there is no evidence that Chang ever attended any coffees.