Reno's judgment day No special prosecutor: Clinton, Gore off the hook for soliciting campaign donations via their office telephones.

December 03, 1997

ATTORNEY GENERAL Janet Reno marches to her own drummer. She's not beloved by either the Clinton White House or the Republican Congress. That's why her decision not to name a special prosecutor to probe telephone fund-raising by the president and vice president deserves careful analysis on its own merits.

There's no doubt Republicans were gleeful at the prospects of a probe of the president. It's just as true spin-control artists among Democrats did their best to dismiss the allegations as political hot air. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

The attorney general's task force studied the issue exhaustively. A 114-year-old law bars solicitation of campaign contributions in federal offices. So when the president picks up a phone and calls a potential contributor, that raises questions of legal propriety.

But this law was intended to protect federal workers from their bosses. In 114 years, it has never been used to prosecute a federal official soliciting a donation from a private citizen. That is a pivotal point, because the law setting up the independent counsel specifically states that the attorney general must follow Justice Department prosecution precedents.

At best, the law is murky. Even less clear-cut is the alleged violation. The president made most of his telephone calls from the White House living quarters -- which is not covered by the law. Republicans have failed to uncover any campaign donations that resulted from those White House telephone calls.

Similarly, Vice President Al Gore says he made 46 calls from his office to raise funds for the Democratic Party. But that could fall in the area of so-called "soft money" for party-building activities -- though some of that money was later used for other purposes. Again, the issue is hardly black-or-white.

All this amounts to flimsy evidence for an unlimited probe of the president and vice president. The task force examined the evidence and was not convinced that further action against the two men was necessary -- though FBI Director Louis Freeh strongly disagreed.

Ms. Reno's decision has sent Republicans into a predictable frenzy. They are, after all, out to bring down the Democrats in the White House. But her integrity should not be called into question. She has not knuckled under to White House pressure. She has remained an independent thinker attempting to do what she thinks is correct. That's all we can expect of our officials in Washington. She should not be excoriated for staying above the political fray.

Pub Date: 12/03/97

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