Gore probe is extended to 60 days Reno appears to clear Clinton, vice president of toughest charges

Her preliminary view

Longer investigation of Gore is limited to his phone calls

October 04, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon and Lyle Denniston | Carl M. Cannon and Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno moved yesterday to delve more deeply into the legality of Vice President Al Gore's fund-raising telephone calls but found no reason to open a new inquiry of Gore or President Clinton on other accusations of campaign finance wrongdoing.

Reno said the Justice Department had not had enough time to investigate Gore's calls from the White House complex. As a result, she said, she was moving from a preliminary 30-day review to a 60-day inquiry that will be wider-ranging and could lead her to seek an independent counsel.

"I remain confident that everything I did was legal," Gore told reporters while on a trip in Tampa, Fla. "Legal -- and proper."

The attorney general, in a letter to Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, made clear that the further investigation she has ordered would be confined to the potentially illegal phone solicitations. An 1883 law bans fund-raising on government property.

Reno did not tip her hand on the fate of a 30-day review her staff is making of any solicitation phone calls Clinton may have made. She has until Oct. 15 to decide on that.

In her letter to Republican lawmakers, the attorney general said that a task force of Justice Department prosecutors -- and a sitting grand jury -- are still looking into many of the other accusations of misconduct against Clinton and Gore leveled by Republican lawmakers.

Reno said she would reconsider a broader inquiry of Gore, and possibly of Clinton, if evidence turns up that either man violated any laws through fund-raising activities beyond the phone calls in question.

Even so, inan announcement welcomed at the White House, Reno explicitly exonerated Clinton and the vice president -- for the time being, at least -- of the most serious charges leveled by Republicans.

These allege Clinton and Gore may have accepted money in return for official favors, illegally used government facilities to solicit campaign funds, or violated tax laws in raising millions of campaign dollars from wealthy individuals.

She strenuously dismissed the most explosive of Hyde's charges -- that, in soliciting donations last year, the president may have participated in bribery or extortion.

Reno wrote: "At this time we are aware of no specific and credible evidence -- indeed, we are aware of no evidence whatsoever -- indicating that the president may have demanded, sought, received or accepted, or agreed to receive or accept, any . . . donations or contributions in quid pro quo exchange for official action, or participated in any criminal conspiracy to do so."

As for Gore, the attorney general declared: "A mere request by him for the assistance of potential donors is not extortion; nor is it a request for a bribe."

Reno also appeared to absolve Gore of doing anything illegal in the highly publicized and politically embarrassing fund-raising lunch held at a Buddhist temple in Southern California.

The narrowness of the new inquiry was what White House officials had expected and hoped for.

Gore had admitted making 46 phone calls in 1996 in which he directly solicited large contributions from wealthy donors. But his lawyers have argued that he did not break the law.

Clinton has said for months that he may have placed similar calls but cannot remember for sure. Because the facts surrounding Clinton may be even cloudier than those raised by Gore's calls, Reno may also need more time to look into the details of the president's activities.

Hyde said last night that Reno's decision "represents progress, however slight." Hyde, who favors a wide-ranging investigation by an independent counsel, said the appointment of such a prosecutor is inevitable.

"The longer her delay in doing this, the longer it will take to get answers the American people deserve," Hyde said.

The attorney general now has 60 days to decide whether to ask that an independent counsel begin an investigation that could stretch out for months or longer and perhaps pose a threat to Gore's presidential ambitions in 2000.

Yesterday's move does not commit Reno to ask for a special prosecutor at the end of the 60 days. She could end the inquiry at that point if the Justice Department finds no reason for more investigation.

Once a Justice Department campaign law task force has completed the new 60-day phase, Reno can absolve Gore, and decline to ask for a special prosecutor, if she concludes that there are "no reasonable grounds" to look any further.

She could also absolve Gore on the theory that there is no basis for believing he had "the state of mind" required to violate any law.

If, however, she finds reasonable grounds for more inquiry, Reno must ask for a special prosecutor, and the special prosecutor branch of the U.S. Court of Appeals here has no choice but to name one.

Reno could not dictate the choice and is unlikely even to recommend anyone for the assignment.

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