Reno adds 7 weeks to her probe No commitment yet on special prosecutor to investigate Clinton

Phone calls at issue

Attorney general to appear today before House panel

October 15, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Lyle Denniston contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno needs more time to determine whether a special prosecutor is needed to look into President Clinton's possible telephone solicitation of campaign donations from the White House.

In a brief letter yesterday, Reno told a panel of federal judges who oversee the appointment of independent counsels of her decision to extend her own investigation for seven more weeks. She is trying to determine whether such phone calls violate a law against fund raising on federal property.

"I have been unable to determine whether there is sufficient specific and credible evidence to suggest a violation of federal criminal law," she wrote.

The extension of the inquiry does not commit Reno to ask for a special prosecutor in Clinton's case. In fact, Justice Department officials have been hinting privately that they believe it is less and less likely she will ask for one.

Reno's deadline for announcing her decision on the need for more time was today. But officials said she wanted to get this step out of the way before appearing this morning before the House Judiciary Committee, which is likely to grill her about the competence of her department's investigation of 1996 campaign fund raising.

The attorney general has defended her investigators. But she has also been embarrassed to learn about key information from press accounts and has been angered by White House tardiness in turning over evidence to her department.

Earlier this month, Reno decided that she needed more time for her investigation of telephone calls by Vice President Al Gore. She now has until Dec. 2 to decide whether to seek a special

prosecutor for either Clinton or Gore.

At a news conference yesterday in Brazil, Clinton was asked how he "felt" about the prospect of this issue hanging over his head for 60 more days.

"I feel nothing about it," he said.

Clinton's reaction

Amplifying on his reply, the president expressed one strong sentiment: that Reno ought to be allowed to make her decision without outside pressure.

"I feel that it would be much better if she were permitted to do her job," Clinton said. "I know I didn't do anything wrong. I did everything I could to comply with the law. I feel good about it. The thing I don't feel good about is the overt, explicit, overbearing attempt to politicize this whole process. That's wrong."

Republicans have been agitating for a special counsel to review a wide-ranging series of actions by Democrats in the 1996 election cycle to raise huge donations from wealthy individuals and corporations -- and, Republicans allege, even foreign governments.

These actions include the holding of White House coffees, the practice of offering Lincoln Bedroom stays to big donors -- including people Clinton did not know -- and dialing for dollars from telephones in government buildings.

"So far, she has stopped short of taking the action which is decisive and necessary, and that is, requesting the court to appoint an independent counsel," Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said yesterday.

But Reno has indicated in official responses that so far as Clinton and Gore are concerned, she is looking only at the narrow issue of whether fund-raising phone calls from government offices violate a statute against raising money in the federal workplace.

On the surface, the statute seems unambiguous in prohibiting such solicitations. But lawyers for Clinton and Gore argue that it does not apply to the president and vice president.

Clinton's lawyers say that because he lives there, the president is entitled to consider the White House his residence. The lawyers also contend that the statute was designed to prevent government supervisors from shaking down their underlings and does not bar officeholders from phoning someone outside the government.

Finally, Clinton and Gore attorneys assert that few, if any, officials have been prosecuted under this law and that the

independent counsel statute should not be used to break new legal ground.

"At the conclusion of [her preliminary inquiry], it will be clear that there are no grounds for the appointment of an independent counsel," Clinton's private lawyer, David E. Kendall, said last night.

Asking for money?

There is one other reason why Clinton himself might not be in jeopardy: He might not have made solicitation phone calls at all.

Gore has acknowledged placing nearly 50 calls. But the issue is murkier regarding the president. White House documents reveal that Clinton was asked by his staff to make such calls, but no one is sure whether he ever did. Harold M. Ickes, a former deputy chief of staff, has testified that he believed Clinton did so, but Clinton has said he does not remember.

The Justice Department task force of lawyers has questioned some of the wealthy donors Clinton was supposed to call and apparently has received no confirmation that he asked for money.

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