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IT'S NOT JUST THE POLITICIANS; IT'S THE SYSTEM

Attorney General Dennis Vacco can produce all sorts of plausible explanations for why law firms that gave heavily to Republicans wound up winning potentially lucrative tobacco litigation work from his office.

And President Clinton can insist that no money changed hands and no policies changed at all when he schmoozed with donors in White House receptions caught on videotape.

But the reality is that the public is entitled to suspect the worst. And that reality will exist as long as politicians operate under a campaign-funding system that practically forces them to push the ethical envelope as far as possible.

In the race to keep up with Republicans who raised far more money, national Democratic leaders have stretched that envelope to unprecedented lengths. So no one should feign surprise that the party might use a photo-op with the president to get star-struck donors to open their wallets.

The fact that it was caught on videotapes that were extremely slow to surface -- and that have no audio when key figure John Huang shows up -- will be grist for Republicans.

But the public shouldn't get sidetracked from the reality that this is what both parties do. Democrats promise "access" to the president while Republicans sell lobbyists breakfast, lunch and dinner with the Senate majority leader or the House speaker during ski weekends.

All of the partisan skirmishing over legal minutiae -- Did he use a pay phone or his office phone? Does a law enacted before the advent of phones now apply? -- must not obscure the central fact: Politicians have to solicit large sums of money to run for office, and the people they solicit want something in return.

It is a system inherently laden with potential conflicts of interest. And it doesn't just contaminate Washington politics; it affects government at every level. It hangs like a cloud over Vacco's selection of three New York State law firms to help him sue tobacco companies in case the proposed national settlement falls through.

The three firms have no experience litigating tobacco cases. However, they are generous contributors to the Republican attorney general and Republicans in general.

In contrast, two New York State law firms that have tobacco experience -- but that only donate to Democrats -- were passed over. Is anyone surprised?

Vacco's office has explanations for picking the firms and says their donations had nothing to do with it. One Manhattan firm was part of a consortium that included three national law firms that have earned reputations in tobacco litigation. Another is famous for litigating breast-implant and asbestos class-action cases, often mentioned as comparable to the tobacco suits. And an Albany firm was added to give the consortium easy access to state records that will have to be researched in the capital.

A spokesman also notes that the firms submitted the lowest prices when the attorney general asked for proposals, that the consortium's fees of 3 percent to 8 percent are the lowest legal costs incurred by any state and that the consortium will be paid nothing if the national settlement makes a state suit moot.

But none of that can erase the suspicion that money played a key part in the process. That's the kind of cynicism that this system breeds. Making politicians beg for virtually unrestricted money from special interests is guaranteed to produce a government that few will ever trust.

If all the public does is look with cynicism at the politicians while continuing to allow the very system that breeds them, it can just expect more of the same.

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