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Caveat lector

29 June 2000

Our current howler (part III): Who knew?

Synopsis: On Sunday, LaBella’s statement was false. But given the setting, who knew?

Commentary by Charles LaBella
Late Edition, CNN, 6/25/00

Commentary by Charles LaBella
Fox News Sunday, FNC, 6/25/00

Testimony of David Strauss
Hearings Before the Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, 9/5/97

It was easy enough to explain what Gore meant when he said the Hsi Lai luncheon "wasn't a fund-raiser." He meant that there hadn't been a ticket price charged, and there had been no solicitation of money. Indeed, according to Richard Sullivan, DNC finance chief, the plan to hold a ticketed luncheon was dropped when the temple became the site (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/28/00). These facts had been on the record for almost three years; anyone who has followed the case would know them. It's almost impossible to research this matter and not know what Gore's comment meant.

But when four "Fox all-stars" assembled Friday night, only Mara Liasson betrayed any knowledge of this utterly basic information (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/27/00). No one else seemed to have the first clue in what was almost a three-year-old story. Thought experiment: Suppose a group of engineers were this misinformed about a firm's three-year-old project. The firm, quite clearly, would have no choice—the three would have to be pulled off the project. There are consequences when engineers don't know their stuff—bridges fall down, and people get sued. But it doesn't work that way with the celebrity press corps. In the press corps, howling ignorance is now the reliable norm, as major pundits made clear Friday night.

And just how bad can the foolishness get? On Sunday's talk shows, we got quite a lesson. Charles LaBella—former head of the fund-raising probe—appeared on two different programs. On Late Edition, the ballyhooed gumshoe—star of the talk shows—specialized in banal reassurance. The probe's current head, Robert Conrad, had made a political contribution to Jesse Helms, Wolf Blitzer noted. Was there any chance that Conrad had been "politically motivated" in suggesting that Gore should be probed?

LABELLA: No, I don't think any career prosecutor is politically motivated in making a recommendation that he or she makes.

None of them! It just doesn't happen! Of course, someone inside the Justice Department had just illegally leaked information about Conrad's probe. But don't let that worry you either, boys and girls. LaBella can explain that one too:

LABELLA: Somebody obviously in the Department of Justice at a high level for some reason decided that he or she didn't think this was being fairly handled because the information had to come from the Department of Justice and no where else.

Why had someone leaked the info? "Obviously," someone thought the case wasn't being fairly handled. The motive couldn't be anything else. The leaker had "obviously" been provoked by Janet Reno's behavior.

Does fairy-tale reasoning impress you, dear friends, when done by a ballyhooed gumshoe? Are you impressed when career prosecutors reason this way? The analysts glanced about the room, nervous. But earlier in the day, on Fox News Sunday, LaBella had brought them out of their chairs. Fred Barnes had asked an intriguing question:

BARNES: But doesn't this case lack a witness, in both cases—a witness who says, "I told him it was a fund-raising event at the Buddhist temple," or a witness who says, "I told him it was hard money he was raising in those phone calls?"

Barnes should have known the answer to his question about the temple, because there is a witness to what Gore was told. It's David Strauss, Gore's deputy chief of staff, who testified before the Thompson committee. Fox viewers would never hear it mentioned this day, but Strauss testified in great detail about what Gore was told about the event. The only problem? Strauss's testimony supported what Gore had said.

How had Gore been briefed on the event? Strauss said he was the source:

STRAUSS: I was the person who was solely responsible for telling the vice president what this event was. He relied on my judgment about this event. I explained to him what the event was all about, suggested to him what sort of remarks to make that would be appropriate for this event.

STRAUSS: I know precisely how the vice president knew about this event because he relied on two sources of information. He relied on me and he relied on his briefing book, and that's the significant information.

When would Gore have been briefed on the event? Strauss said he would have been briefed in the car, on the way to the luncheon. Had the briefing book indicated that the event was a fund-raiser? Quite the contrary, Strauss explained. The briefing book gave a dollar figure for the San Jose dinner, but not for the Hsi Lai luncheon. Why had Gore given a non-partisan speech? At Strauss' direction, he testified. Why didn't Gore thank donors at the event? He hadn't thought anyone had donated. And one last point: On April 29, did Strauss know anything about any fund-raising connected with the luncheon?

ALAN BARON: Did you ever know anything about contributions having been collected or monies having been collected prior to the April 29 event at the Hsi Lai temple? There has been testimony that a certain amount of money was generated in advance of the event.

STRAUSS: I had no knowledge of that.

BARON: Do you have any reason to believe that the Vice President knew anything relative to this event, either prior to the event or that after the event any monies had been collected?

STRAUSS: I have no reason to believe that he knew anything about this.

So there was a witness to what Gore was told—and the witness said Gore was told this was an "outreach" event, not a political fund-raiser. Surely, LaBella knew all about this record. But here's what LaBella told Barnes:

LABELLA: You know, you don't have a witness who says—not that I'm aware—who says, Yes, I specifically told him that the Hsi Lai temple event was a fund-raising event. But circumstantially, it seems pretty obvious. Everyone else knew. Secret Service knew it was a fund-raising event. All his aides knew it was a fund-raising event. So you have to scratch your head and ask, you know, the main player didn't know? It's kind of curious.

This makes good spin on Hannity & Colmes, but it's grinding deception as an account of the record. "All his aides knew it was a fund-raising event?" As we've seen, one of the Thompson committee's principal witnesses gave detailed, sworn testimony stating the opposite. Is LaBella—former head of the probe—unfamiliar with the basic record? And by the way, if he ever read the record—as he surely must have done—he would also know that a second Gore aide testified to what she had understood. Ladan Manteghi, Gore's scheduler for the event, had been deposed on the Hsi Lai matter. During Strauss' appearance at the Thompson committee, Senator Carl Levin read from her deposition:

LEVIN: Now, Ms. Manteghi, who we had urged to be called here, as a witness today, when her testimony would be timely—it's clearly relevant testimony—who was the scheduler for the event, testified as following at her deposition...

"Did you ever speak with either [DNC officials] Maura McManimon or John Huang about what type of event the Hsi Lai temple event was?" That's the question to her.

Answer: "Yes."

"And what type of event was it?"

Answer: "The Hsi Lai temple event was to be an outreach event to the Asian community. Basically we were trying to bring in a new constituency..."

"Did you ever have any conversations with either Maura McManimon or John Huang or anyone at the DNC about whether or not this was a fund-raising event?"

Answer: "No, we did not. We did not. In terms of setting up logistics for this event, there really were not indications of this being a fund-raiser. The typical elements weren't there."

So that was the sworn statement of a second Gore aide about her understanding of the Hsi Lai event.

"All [Gore's] aides knew it was a fund-raising event?" LaBella gravely misstated the record. But LaBella was talking to Washington pundits. So, given the setting, who knew?

Tomorrow: Writers for Time and U.S. News were also baffled by what Gore had said.


The Daily update (6/29/00)

Gong show: No construction's too silly for the celebrity press corps when they try to maintain treasured stories. Recently, Robert Novak hauled out a standard construction we've seen used again and again:

NOVAK: Rep. Dan Burton's Government Reform Committee...has finally forced release of Justice Department documents. They detail insistence by FBI Director Louis Freeh that Reno was conflicted in investigating Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Justice Department functionaries ignored him.

It's become standard usage—because Reno didn't agree with Freeh and LaBella, scribes say she "ignored" them. The notion that an attorney general is required to agree with her aides is a notion that could only be hatched on Mars; why would we even have an AG if she had to do what her underlings told her? Execs disagree with advice all the time! But as we've said, nothing's too silly for the celebrity press corps when maintaining a treasured tale. By the way, when LaBella appeared on Hannity & Colmes Tuesday night, this exchange kicked off the segment:

COLMES: Welcome, Mr. LaBella. I'm reading a piece by Roger Parloff in American Lawyer, where he claims that—he's an award-winning journalist—he says, "The clear majority of Janet Reno's advisers always recommended that no independent counsel was required, according to two people involved in the process." Surely you recommended otherwise, but there were a lot of other voices in that department, correct?

LABELLA: Absolutely.

COLMES: So the fact that you didn't—I mean you've gotten a lot of media attention, you've done shows like this, we appreciate having you on—but there are a number of people, advisers to Janet Reno, who said just the opposite of what you said, that there should be no independent counsel appointed.

LABELLA: Right. Absolutely. Yeah.

Would Reno have been "ignoring" them if she had appointed an independent counsel? The construction, of course, is simply inane—and a tribute to the mighty god, Spin.

By the way: If you want to read the Parloff piece, you know what to do. Just click here.

Commentary by Alan Colmes, Charles LaBella
Hannity & Colmes, FNC, 6/27/00