Reno rules out special prosecutor She clears Clinton, Gore of wrongdoing on White House calls

O'Leary cleared of bribe

Investigation was too narrowly focused, say FBI chief, GOP

December 03, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Lyle Denniston contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Bucking the advice of the FBI director, Attorney General Janet Reno announced her conclusion yesterday that an independent counsel is not needed to investigate the campaign fund-raising activities of President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Bringing to an end a preliminary investigation into campaign fund raising by the two of leaders in the executive branch, Reno said there was no firm evidence that Clinton or Gore broke any federal law.

"These decisions were arrived at after thousands of hours of investigation and discussion with investigators, attorneys and senior officials at the Justice Department and the FBI," Reno said at a brief news conference that ended the suspense generated by a preliminary inquiry she began three months ago.

"This is the evidence I have," the attorney general said. "I've applied the law respecting the independent counsel, and these are my decisions."

Reno boasted during her news conference of the wide sweep of the campaign finance investigation done at the Justice Department. But she confined her explanation of why she was not seeking an independent counsel to the sole issue of whether telephone fund-raising by Clinton and Gore was legal.

Angry Republican critics argued that in so doing, Reno had focused her investigation far too narrowly.

At the White House, Clinton issued a brief statement devoid of any gloating.

"The attorney general made her decision based on a careful review of the law and the facts," the statement said. "And that's as it should be."

Gore, who was traveling in Middleton, Conn., was more talkative.

"Well, obviously, I'm very pleased by the decision today of the Justice Department," he said. "Now that there's been a full and independent review, we can put this issue of the phone calls behind us once and for all."

Reno, however, pointedly stressed at her news conference that a Justice Department task force would continue to review questionable fund-raising activity from the 1996 campaign, and that if any new evidence suggests the need for a special prosecutor, she would not hesitate to ask for one.

For their part, Republican lawmakers critical of Reno's decision yesterday discussed ways in which they would continue to pursue the questions surrounding the fund-raising activities of the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996.

Even before the decision was announced, Rep. Dan Burton, the California Republican who chairs a House committee investigating campaign finance, announced that he would bring both Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh before his committee Tuesday.

Their joint appearance will serve to highlight the unusually public disagreement between the nation's two top law enforcement officials over whether to seek a special prosecutor.

Freeh is a former prosecutor and federal judge who, like Reno, was appointed by Clinton in 1993. He argued strenuously right up until yesterday that the entire campaign fund-raising question -- and not just the fund-raising calls -- needs to be investigated by a prosecutor not beholden to Clinton.

FBI sources also indicated that their boss was unimpressed with the level of vigor exhibited by the prosecutors on the Justice Department task force put together by Reno to investigate fund-raising abuses.

So far, that task force has produced no indictments or convictions -- and has been beholden to national media organizations for key revelations propelling the controversy, including the fact that the FBI has in its files evidence that China may have tried to influence the 1996 elections.

Last night, the FBI director took the unusual step of releasing a statement that sought to dispel the image of dissension.

"Lawyers and investigators can and often do disagree," his statement said. "I and all of my colleagues in the FBI respect her decision and understand fully that it is the attorney general's by law to make."

Republican lawmakers had asked Reno to seek the appointment of an independent counsel based on a wide array of allegations )) relating to the fund-raising methods used by the Clinton-Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

The accusations ranged from a specific accusation that former Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary accepted a bribe in soliciting a donation from a contributor named Johnny Chung to the much broader charge that Clinton and Gore oversaw a vast conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws.

Early in her inquiry, however, Reno narrowed the matter down to a single question: Did Gore and Clinton violate federal law by making their fund-raising phone calls from the White House?

The attorney general's conclusion, she explained yesterday, was unequivocal no.

"Today, following the law's letter, I have decided that the allegations against President Clinton, Vice President Gore and former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary do not at this time warrant the appointment of an independent counsel," she said. "This decision was mine, and it was based on the facts and the law, not pressure, politics or any other factor."

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