WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno concluded yesterday that there was insufficient evidence to seek the
appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Vice President Al Gore's fund-raising role in the 1996 re-election campaign.
It was the second time she has investigated and cleared the vice president in connection with campaign solicitations he made from the White House.
The decision, while assailed by Republicans, swept away a potentially ominous cloud of criminal inquiry that had hung over Gore's presidential ambitions.
With her aides divided, Reno deliberated until the final day of a 90-day preliminary inquiry into whether Gore misled Justice Department investigators during their initial inquiry last year.
They were examining whether calls he made from his White House office violated laws against fund raising on federal property.
"The evidence fails to provide any reasonable basis for a conclusion that the vice president may have lied," Reno said in a legal brief filed with the three-member panel of federal appellate judges who supervise independent counsel matters.
She added, "As our court filing demonstrates, I have found that there are no reasonable grounds for further investigation."
Reno still has two independent counsel decisions pending on other campaign finance issues, but neither is aimed so pointedly at Gore.
One is examining the truthfulness of statements by Harold Ickes, the former deputy chief of staff. The other is a broadly framed inquiry into whether Clinton and other officials violated the law when they used Democratic Party funds, rather than Clinton-Gore campaign funds, to finance a major advertising campaign that went too far, according to election auditors, in directly promoting the Clinton-Gore campaign.
A spokesman for Gore, Christopher Lehane, expressed the vice president's relief at the decision: "The vice president is pleased that this preliminary review has been concluded without the need for an independent counsel."
Republicans who have assailed Reno for two years over her refusal to seek an independent prosecutor to investigate possible campaign finance abuses by the Democrats again expressed frustration over her unwillingness to allow an outside review.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Reno had unnecessarily limited her focus to small issues, such as whether Gore's fund-raising phone calls from the White House were proper.
Said Hatch: "What is at stake is whether the public's confidence in the rule of law and integrity of the Department of Justice will be further eroded by this administration and whether there will ever be a full accounting for reckless fund-raising practices of President Clinton and other administration officials."
Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican who is chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, which has investigated campaign finance issues, said, "For the past two years, the attorney general has made it clear she is committed to protecting the president."
Few officials within the Justice Department believed that Reno was likely to open a wider criminal inquiry of Gore. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh urged her to refer the case to an independent prosecutor -- a position he has long taken on the campaign finance issue.
But other top officials, among them David Vicinanzo, lead prosecutor for Reno's campaign finance unit, were unconvinced. They recommended against appointment of an independent counsel because the evidence was insubstantial and provided little promise that further investigation would prove worthwhile, law enforcement officials said.
Vicinanzo replaced Charles La Bella as head of the Justice Department's campaign finance team. La Bella left in July, before the latest Gore inquiry began, but he had urged Reno to
refer a number of campaign finance issues to an independent counsel.
The Justice Department's second inquiry of Gore began in September after the White House belatedly disclosed a fund-raising memo written by David Strauss, a Gore aide. Strauss' handwritten notes were taken during a White House meeting on Nov. 21, 1995, that focused on campaign finance issues and suggested that Gore may not have been truthful about his fund-raising practices during the 1997 inquiry.
At that time, Gore had told Justice Department investigators that he thought the funds he had raised in telephone calls from his White House office were only so-called soft money donations.
These contributions generally fall outside federal election laws, may be given in any amount and are spent by political parties only for such generic purposes as get-out-the-vote drives and other party-building activities.
There is no prohibition on raising soft money from government property.
But the Strauss memo indicated Gore may have known when he was questioned by Justice Department investigators in 1997 that the contributions he helped raise were partially diverted into hard money accounts by the Democratic National Committee.
Pub Date: 11/25/98