WASHINGTON -- Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot recalls President Reagan thanking him for donating almost $1 million in what has been found to be an illegal White House scheme to ransom American hostages in Lebanon.
The final report of the congressional Iran-Contra committees, released Wednesday, said the White House violated federal law in soliciting private money from Perot and offering it as ransom for hostages.
Perot, 57, recalled in a telephone interview Thursday that he sat next to Reagan at a two-hour dinner around Christmas 1985 and the president expressed personal appreciation for his efforts to help secure the release of William Buckley, the CIA's station chief in Lebanon, as well as other hostages.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, asked at a briefing Thursday about Reagan's role in the three unsuccessful attempts to pay outright ransom for hostages between 1984 and 1986, said, 'I don't think we will ever discuss these kinds of details.'
Fitzwater added that he did not 'expect any formal statement' from the president on the report that blamed Reagan for the administration's 'disdain for the law' in secret arms deals with Iran and the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
Perot, who said he chatted with Reagan at the fund-raising dinner at a swank Washington hotel, said the president indicated he was 'very concerned' about the hostages.
'The president thanked me for all I was trying to do to recover Buckley,' the billionaire said. 'It was absolutely clear what he was referring to -- the payments were all I did for Buckley.'
Perot said Secretary of State George Shultz and the late CIA Director William Casey also thanked him in different conversations for his hostage payments.
The Texan donated and lost $300,000 in the three unsuccessful ransom efforts, which were executed by Lt. Col. Oliver North, the White House aide ultimately fired for his central role in the Iran-Contra scandal.
The plans also called for additional Perot donations of $1 million for each hostage released by their pro-Iranian captors in Lebanon.
Former national security adviser Robert McFarlane testified before the committees in May that Reagan approved and Attorney General Edwin Meese gave legal authorization to the ransom scheme.
The committees' report did not mention Reagan or try to identify his role in the operations, but it said 'evidence points toward the conclusion' that Meese gave legal sanction to the operation.
Meese refused comment Thursday on his role in the operation and dismissed the whole report as 'Monday morning quarterbacking' that turned up little more than was found in his own brief inquiry into the scandal a year ago.
'I don't think there is anything much new there,' the attorney general said.
The House and Senate committees that reviewed the scandal have turned over much of their evidence on the ransom scheme to independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who is investigating its legality, sources said.
Reagan has never clearly answered the question of whether he approved the ransom schemes. In May he said, 'I'm having some trouble remembering. ... It's possible that what we're talking about was use of money to pay people and hire individuals who could effect a rescue of our people there. And I've never thought of that as ransom.'
Fitzwater said Thursday, 'The president told the truth on every occasion and on every subject, period.'
Shultz denied through a spokesman Thursday that he ever had been apprised of the ransom operation. The committees reported that he had not been consulted about the initiative.
Casey, who died May 6 after resigning his CIA post three months earlier because of brain cancer, made no known public statements about ransom schemes.
But Perot said that in thanking him, all three officials -- Reagan, Shultz and Casey -- initiated the discussion about the hostages and 'showed deep, deep concern.'
In a separate development, the Iran-Contra report said another conservative, wealthy Texan, Nelson Bunker Hunt, gave $484,000 to a fund-raising group that illegally used its tax-exempt status to raise money to arm the Contras.
Hunt made the contributions after North flew to Dallas aboard a chartered plane for a private dinner with him in September 1985, the report said.
North presented the multimillionaire oilman with a list of $5 million worth of weaponry as well as non-lethal items he said were needed by the rebels, according to investigators.
Hunt could not be reached for comment Thursday.