W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 14, 2000 -- The FBI is assessing a videotape and documents sent to a confidant of Al Gore that relate to George W. Bush’s debate preparations.
Tom Downey, a former New York congressman who had been helping the vice president prepare for debates, received the mysterious package at his Washington office Tuesday morning. After viewing the enclosed VHS tape for less than a minute and looking through the half-inch thick stack of written documents, he contacted his lawyer Marc Miller, the attorney said. Miller than contacted the FBI which took possession of the package and its contents Wednesday afternoon.
“When Mr. Downey determined what it was or what he thought it was,” Miller told ABCNEWS, “we decided we didn’t want to have anything to do with it.”
‘The Real Deal’
A Democratic lawyer knowledgeable about the contents of the package told ABCNEWS that the videotape and papers are “the real deal” and appear to be actual material from the Bush campaign’s debate preparations.
“Clearly, this is something that should not have been sent to me,” Downey said in a statement.
Downey told associates that the tape showed a mock-debate session between the Texas governor and New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, the Bush camp’s stand-in for Gore, the Associated Press reported.
The package, according to Downey’s attorney, was shipped via 2-Day Express Mail and has a postmark of Austin, Texas, where the Bush campaign’s headquarters is located. Miller added that the package had a return address as well as a typed, but unsigned note addressed to Downey.
The bizarre incident occurred on the eve of a meeting between Bush and Gore campaign officials and the Commission on Presidential Debates to resolve a longstanding dispute over the date, venue and format for televised debates this fall.
The bipartisan commission, which has determined the details of presidential debates since the 1988 campaign, has scheduled three dates for 90-minute forums: Oct. 3, in Boston; Oct. 11, in Winston-Salem, N. C.; and Oct. 17 in St. Louis. The Gore campaign agreed to the plan, but on Sept. 3, Bush announced he was accepting only one of those forums and proposed two other 60-minute debates on TV talk-shows.
Today’s meeting — which got underway in Washington at noon ET today — is the first negotiation session between the campaigns and the commission since the stand-off over debates began.
Bush Camp Notified of Package
After they decided to turn the mysterious package over to the authorities, Downey and Miller also alerted William Daley, chairman of the Gore campaign, who then notified Don Evans, his counterpart at the Bush campaign, of the incident.
“We do not know what the Gore campaign claims to have in their possession and we would like to review the material,” Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer told The Associated Press. “Our attorneys are in the process of asking to review it.”
Bush campaign lawyer Ben Ginsburg told ABCNEWS he called Downey’s attorney Wednesday and asked if he could examine the contents of the package, but Miller told him he preferred to simply turn the materials over to the FBI.
“The best and most appropriate thing to do,” said Miller, “was to turn it over to authorities and let them decide what it was and what to do with it.”
Ginsburg said Wednesday that he planned to contact the bureau.
One Bush official involved in debate preparation told ABCNEWS that there are “fewer than a dozen” tapes of the Texas governor’s practice debate sessions and that the campaign was taking an inventory of the tapes to see if any are missing.
Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said that only a half-dozen high-level campaign officials, including herself and the governor, had “legitimate access” to the debate tapes.
As a result of his receipt of the materials, Downey said he would no longer participate in Gore’s debate preparation efforts “in order to ensure the integrity of the debate process.”
“Using these materials was never an option,” he said.
“It was right for them to turn [the package] over to the authorities,” said Hughes.
It is not yet known whether the FBI will launch an investigation to determine whether the materials were illegally obtained from the Bush campaign.
ABCNEWS’ John Berman, Mark Halperin, Dana Hill and Terry Moran and The Associated Press contributed to this report.