Reno's slow road Gore's phone calls: Next phase is to determine need for an independent counsel.

October 04, 1997

DID VICE PRESIDENT Al Gore break the law by soliciting campaign donations through telephone calls from his White House office?

The answer will depend on which interpretation of a 114-year-old law prevails in a tug of war in Washington charged with partisan politics.

In this case, Republicans want the strictest possible interpretation to apply, while supporters of the president and vice president argue that a 114-year-old law specifically designed to protect government employees from political solicitations has never been enforced in this way before.

Republicans have been pressing Attorney General Janet Reno for months to appoint an independent counsel to look into the Gore telephone calls and other allegations of improprieties in the 1996 campaign.

Her steadfast refusal to jump to conclusions before her department has finished its own slow and painstaking investigation has infuriated Republicans -- and not without some justification. The Washington Post reported yesterday that the investigation has been conducted under an extremely narrow interpretation of the independent counsel law.

Instead of focusing first on the allegations that would seem most likely to involve a high official breaking the law, the investigation has instead mostly followed newspaper reports, focusing on lower-level officials not covered by the independent counsel law.

As a result, a highly placed key witness like former White House aide Harold J. Ickes was interviewed by Justice Department investigators late in the process and only when it became evident that he would soon be called before a Senate committee to give public testimony.

Despite her department's plodding progress Ms. Reno has steadfastly stood behind her probe, only recently shaking up the slow-moving process. And this week she moved one step closer toward the appointment of an independent counsel to look into Vice President Gore's fund-raising phone calls.

That is not good news for the Clinton White House. But the prospect of using an old federal statute that has never before been enforced in this way could also come back to haunt congressional Republicans, who may have committed similar indiscretions.

Even so, it is time to examine the issue of fund-raising solicitations by elected officials using telephones in government offices.

It is also time for the Justice Department probe to move more quickly to resolve lingering questions about the 1996 presidential campaign -- and for members of Congress to end their cynical manipulation of the campaign finance issue and enact real reform before they finish work this year.


The other battle at Camden Yards

Parking dispute: Stadium Authority's plan makes more sense than the Orioles'.

IN THE MIDST of the Orioles' early playoff successes, a dispute rages on between the baseball club's management and the Maryland Stadium Authority over plans to add parking at Camden Yards. This fight between Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos and John A. Moag Jr., chairman of the stadium authority, is the proverbial skunk at the garden party, or in this case, the bullpen party.

Here are the competing ideas:

Plan A calls for a huge Niketown sporting-goods store/sports memorabilia museum or perhaps a theme restaurant incorporated into a 1,500-car garage between the stadiums on land the state already owns. The tenants would create jobs and help offset the $40 million cost of the parking deck.

Plan B calls for the state to acquire, by eminent domain, land now used by businesses across Russell Street from the stadiums, including a Staples office supply store that its manager says is profitable and employs 17 people. In place of those taxpaying businesses, the state would build a garage that would require thousands of season-ticket holders to cross six lanes of traffic to reach Camden Yards.

Plan A, the more creative, is favored by the stadium authority. Plan B, which seems wasteful, is backed by the Orioles.

Ironically, the stadium authority and Orioles agree on the fundamental point, that more spaces are needed to replace the ones lost to the Ravens stadium. Unfortunately, egos have blotted out any common purpose.

Orioles attorney Alan M. Rifkin contends a Niketown-type venture would interfere with crowds arriving at and leaving baseball games -- a violation of the authority's contract with the Orioles. A commercial entity might just as well smooth the flow of traffic, since more fans would linger following a game. Mr. Rifkin alsocontends the structure would detract from Camden Yards' praised design, but that's not a given. His point is weakened further by the fact that the Orioles say they would support a garage there -- without a commercial tenant.

Indeed, if Niketown is the rub, the authority seems to have a moral, if not legal obligation, to work something out with Mr. Angelos and the Ravens, who seem more favorable toward this plan. The authority seeks to add a business that would both piggyback on and compete with its major clients, the sports teams.

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