Independent counsel forces Democrats onto the defensive

September 24, 1997|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The decision by Attorney General Janet Reno to consider an independent counsel investigation of President Clinton is one that changes the basic nature of the controversy over how the White House raised campaign money last year.

It presents the possibility that the Democratic Party will carry a heavy burden into the campaigns of 1998 and 2000.

Ms. Reno had no choice except to take the preliminary steps that could lead to a special prosecutor for the president once she had done the same thing for Vice President Al Gore.

It is already clear that it was Mr. Clinton who took the lead in raising huge amounts of "soft money" for that campaign; Mr. Gore was simply playing the loyal lieutenant.

The issues are narrow enough and technical enough so they are hardly the kind of thing that would bring down a president. This is miles and miles from being another Watergate. The question is whether President Clinton made telephone calls from the White House that violated a prohibition against raising campaign money on federal property, a prohibition originally intended to protect federal workers from being dunned by their political superiors for contributions.

But if these investigations of Messrs. Clinton and Gore are being conducted at this time next year, the Democratic Party inevitably will be on the defensive on the whole matter of political corruption. Beyond that, the investigations have the obvious potential to compromise Mr. Gore's prospects for the presidential nomination in 2000.

The White House handling of the controversy has made it all the more dangerous. Mr. Gore has been forced into making increasingly damaging statements about how many calls he made from the White House, thus projecting an image of a politician yielding the truth only when it is dragged out of him.

And the president has complicated the matter by his statements that he cannot remember whether he made any such telephone calls. To those who have seen him demonstrate a staggering memory of events large and small, that is hard to swallow.

Coincidences?

Beyond that, however, there is documentary evidence to suggest that the president was given lists of people to call and that those people subsequently made large donations to the Democratic National Committee. There may not have been a connection -- but if not, there were some remarkable coincidences.

In legal terms, the critical point seems to be whether the money these leaders raised was put into "soft money" accounts -- meaning those for contributions to the party, on which there are no limits -- or whether some money went into the so-called "hard money" accounts, where it could be used by the candidates themselves.

The evidence is that some of the money did go to the wrong places, although there is no reason to believe Messrs. Clinton or Gore were aware of that illegal finagling.

Chances are that the issue of which campaign accounts were used was never raised with either principal and that they relied -- unwisely -- on their staff to carry out the mechanics properly.

It is still possible that neither the Gore nor Clinton cases will reach the stage at which the independent counsels are named. In each case, Ms. Reno has ordered a 30-day preliminary review to see if there is enough evidence to require a more thorough 90-day examination before deciding on a final step.

But in political terms much damage already has been done. Ms. Reno is a Clinton appointee and any decision against a special prosecutor in either case will be depicted by Republicans as a political whitewash.

The most the president and vice president can hope for would be a fast-track inquiry that would settle the matter early next year, meaning before the mid-term election campaign begins to claim the attention of voters.

But the history of these investigations is that they drag on forever, even when the question is narrow and technical. If there is an easy way out for Mr. Clinton, it is far from apparent today.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 9/24/97

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