Investigation into Clinton-Gore fund-raising should continue

December 05, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno's decision not to recommend appointment of an independent counsel to look into office phone calls from President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore seeking campaign contributions was the right one, but that decision should not end the matter of Clinton-Gore abuses in fund-raising.

Small potatoes

It was ridiculous on the face of the matter to go after the two ranking officials of the federal government on the minor point of what telephones they used, and from what office. The problem )) with Ms. Reno's decision is that it can give Messrs. Clinton and Gore a pass in public opinion for other conduct, by them personally or under their leadership of the Democratic Party, for excesses that should be illegal, if they aren't technically now.

Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, made this point emphatically on Sunday television interview shows before Ms. Reno's decision. He said the attorney general should not recommend an independent counsel look into the narrow charge, because it was small potatoes compared to the much broader abuses in campaign finance that have been spotlighted.

Mr. Hatch said that while Ms. Reno and the White House were hiding behind a provision of the independent counsel law that requires such an appointment only if there is evidence a specific high-ranking official may have committed a crime, they were ignoring another provision.

That one permits the appointment on a discretionary basis if people around the president are suspected of committing crimes, thus creating the appearance of a conflict of interest. Mr. Hatch argued that there is evidence to warrant invoking this provision, from various perks handed out to contributors and solicitation of funds from foreigners to the misuse of hard and soft campaign money.

Another Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, agreed on another weekend show that ''the focus just on the telephone calls is much too narrow,'' noting that Mr. Clinton's own admission at a meeting of contributors that $27 million in soft money the Democrats were able to spend well in advance of the 1996 election was responsible for his wide lead.

The Democrats trotted out two apologists to counter Messrs. Hatch and Specter, Rep. Barney Frank and Sen. Bob Torricelli, who delivered the standard defenses that the phone calls were silly technicalities and that if the Republicans were so concerned about campaign finance reform, they should stop blocking it at every turn in Congress.

Mr. Frank candidly explained what the whole business is about. ''I think it is fortunately beyond all of our power to tell the public that no politics is being played in the investigation or the demands for the investigation,'' he said on NBC News' ''Meet the Press.'' ''Anyone who believes that probably ought to switch to the cartoons.''

No substance

Then, as if to prove his point, Mr. Frank added: ''As to the substance, there just isn't any there.'' Well, anybody who believes that, after the months of confirmed stories about the selling of White House favors and presidential access, ought to switch to the cartoons, too.

As a practical matter, with the Senate hearings abandoned, probably for good, and the House hearings under loose cannon Republican Rep. Dan Burton reeling from credibility problems and a weak start already, Messrs. Clinton and Gore may be home free. More important, effective congressional hearings and more heat on the president and vice president, not to mention Republican abusers as well, could have lit more of a fire under campaign finance reform in Congress.

Stalwarts like Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, authors of a now-watered-down reform bill that would at least ban soft money, no doubt will persevere. But the public interest in the issue, never very high, is likely to slip even more now.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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