SAN FRANCISCO — A Republican presidential candidate who led a Senate inquiry into illegal foreign fund raising in the 1996 presidential campaign, Fred Thompson of Tennessee, is warning that the phenomenon may be repeating itself with Senator Clinton's current White House bid.
"From what I read in the papers, it looks to me like some of the same familiar refrains are playing when I look at Senator Clinton's situation," Mr. Thompson told reporters yesterday during his first campaign swing through California. "I'm not going to jump to any conclusions or make any accusations until all the facts are in, but when I see people who are in the newspapers bundling large sums of money from mysterious sources, I must say it brings back some very unfond memories for me when I was chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee and we investigated those matters in the '90s with regard to President Clinton."
Dishwashers, waiters, and other low-income workers in New York's Chinatown recorded as donating tens of thousands of dollars to Mrs. Clinton's presidential campaign this year could not be located by journalists or lacked the immigration status needed to donate legally, according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times.
In 1996, the Democratic National Committee raised millions of dollars from immigrant communities. Some money was later traced to sources abroad, mostly China and Indonesia. More than two dozen people were prosecuted. Others fled the country.
Spokesmen for Mrs. Clinton's campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this article but have said previously that donors are vetted and suspect donations returned.
During a news conference sandwiched between his three fund-raising events yesterday, a subdued Mr. Thompson also faulted Mrs. Clinton for not giving a clear answer at a debate Tuesday about whether she supports or opposes giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. "It's another example of dodging hard issues," he said. "It's a typical political kind of deal. It sounds to me like where you try to straddle the fence and be noncommittal."
For a moment, though, Mr. Thompson sounded sympathetic to the New York senator's predicament. "If you've got a lead in the polls, you tend to get real restricted in what you answer for fear that you'll make some kind of mistake, instead of saying what's in your mind and on your heart," he said.
Mr. Thompson was blunt about his own view on the licenses issue. "I think giving driver's licenses to illegals is a bad idea," he said. "We have to quit inducing people to come and stay if they're illegal. I think it's a disservice to the millions of people who've stood in long lines around the world at America's embassies to come here."
The former Tennessee senator was less definitive when asked whether he considers an interrogation technique reportedly used by the CIA, waterboarding, to be torture. "Clearly, we do not believe in torture in this country. Clearly, we must abide by international agreements that we are a party to," he said. Invoking a scenario where a suspect was believed to have information about a looming attack, Mr. Thompson said, "The means and the measures that our government uses and our president uses have to meet the situation that's presented."
Speaking in a city known for a brief period as a Mecca for gay marriage, Mr. Thompson said he opposes not only that concept but even same-sex civil unions, an alternative legal designation that all major Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed. "I do not think that they're a good idea," the actor and former senator said, before adding that he wouldn't support a federal ban on the arrangements. "I'm a believer in federalism. ... States with regards to matters that are traditionally state matters ought to be free to make those decisions themselves, even if Fred Thompson might disagree."
A recent Field Poll in California showed the Republican frontrunner, Mayor Giuliani, is slipping somewhat, but with no signs of traction for other contenders. Mr. Thompson's fledgling campaign has picked up several key staffers with experience in California from Governor Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign.