Clinton, Gore questioned by FBI about fund raising White House delays public announcement

November 13, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a process shrouded in secrecy by the White House, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were questioned by Justice Department investigators Tuesday about their role in soliciting large campaign donations by telephone last year.

Neither White House officials nor private lawyers for Clinton and Gore would disclose yesterday the substance of the questions or the answers. The interviews occurred three weeks before Attorney General Janet Reno must decide whether to request an independent prosecutor to investigate whether Clinton or Gore broke a law against fund-raising on federal property.

Both men took part voluntarily in the interviews, which had been planned for a month. Still, the fact that the president and vice president submitted to formal questions from law enforcement officials about the legality of their actions underscored how much is riding on Reno's decision.

The sessions, which one source said took nearly two hours, were conducted separately. Clinton was interviewed in the White House residence. Gore was questioned at his home on the grounds of the Naval Observatory.

The Justice Department team that interviewed the president included four department attorneys and two FBI agents, sources said. Clinton was represented by his personal attorney, David E. Kendall, and by an associate of Kendall. The FBI agents did most of the talking, sources said.

"We answered all of their questions," Kendall said.

Gore was represented by James F. Neal, a longtime friend from (( Tennessee who once served as a Watergate prosecutor, and George T. Frampton Jr., a former official in the Clinton Interior Department.

"The interview was very thorough and very professional," Frampton said last night. "The Justice Department officials certainly asked all they wanted to ask."

Neither the president nor the vice president was placed under oath, although each was willing to be. The FBI explained to them that none of the other people interviewed in the fund-raising investigation had been under oath when they were questioned outside the grand jury, and they wanted to treat the president and the vice president "no better and no worse" than the previous witnesses.

But lawyers close to the investigation say that both men were reminded by their own lawyers that they were bound under federal law to provide forthright answers.

"There is certainly exposure for a person not telling the truth to FBI officials during an official investigation," said one attorney close to the case.

Campaign-year telephone calls -- and the interpretation of the law regarding solicitations -- have become the focal point of Reno's impending decision on whether to seek a special prosecutor to look into Democratic fund-raising irregularities in 1996.

Gore has acknowledged making such solicitations. Clinton, whose staff had asked him to place such calls to wealthy Democratic donors, has said previously that he is unsure whether he followed through on that request.

In any event, lawyers for both men have insisted that phone calls placed by a president and a vice president are not covered by a federal law against fund-raising on federal property.

Both men have also stressed that they would fully cooperate with Reno's inquiry. What was unexpected was the lengths to which Gore and Clinton, through their private attorneys, tried yesterday to keep the public in the dark about Tuesday's sessions.

Although the interviews had been planned four weeks ago, neither Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary, nor hTC Lanny J. Davis, a special White House counsel, was apparently informed of the sessions until they had been completed Tuesday.

For McCurry, this led to an embarrassing delay in making that information public and left him unable to answer basic questions yesterday about what had occurred in the interviews. White House officials said late last night that they do not believe anything detrimental was unearthed.

At his regular White House briefing, McCurry appeared to be angry. Asked why the president's press secretary could not obtain from the president rudimentary information, such as how long the questioning lasted and who was there, McCurry snapped, "Because I'm not going to."

Instead, he tersely referred all inquiries to Clinton's and Gore's personal lawyers.

Kendall's preferred style is to keep everything close to the vest, and the handling of the questioning suggests that he has won a turf battle at the White House over how much information to disclose about the investigation. The upshot is that, at the end of the day yesterday, several key questions remained unanswered:

Does Clinton now remember making telephone solicitations for campaign contributions?

Did Gore solicit the large donations on behalf of the Democratic Party, as he once said in public, or on behalf of the Clinton-Gore campaign, which was bound by stricter limits?

How much did Gore know about the ways in which the Democratic National Committee planned to use the large donations he was seeking?

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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