WASHINGTON - A top Justice Department investigator has recommended the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Vice President Al Gore's fund-raising activities during the 1996 presidential campaign, a senior government official said yesterday.
The recommendation will go to Attorney General Janet Reno, who has twice rejected requests for an independent investigation into whether Gore broke campaign finance laws and lied about it to federal investigators.
Robert Conrad, head of the Justice Department task force looking into campaign finance irregularities, interviewed Gore in April. It is not known whether Conrad has turned up new evidence of possible improprieties by the vice president that were not contained in the 1998 recommendations, by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and Charles G. LaBella, Conrad's predecessor, for an independent counsel inquiry.
In 1998, the Justice Department officially exonerated Gore, telling a federal court that it found "clear and convincing" evidence that Gore had not committed any wrongdoing.
In an interview last night, LaBella said he understands Conrad's suspicions.
"I think he's just underscoring what we both felt," LaBella said, referring to himself and Freeh. "If he had the same feeling that I had as a prosecutor, that maybe the vice president wasn't as candid as he should have been, that presents a real problem."
If nothing else, the Conrad recommendation is certain to provide a major distraction for Gore, who trails his Republican rival, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, in the polls and is struggling to project a more positive message.
Campaigning in Minnesota yesterday, Gore said he knew nothing about the recommendation, telling reporters, "You're privy to news that I don't have."
That news came when Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, held a news conference to announce that he had "reason to believe" that Conrad had recommended a special counsel for Gore. Specter serves on a subcommittee that is investigating fund-raising improprieties.
James Kennedy, a spokesman for the vice president, said Gore had "received no word from the Department of Justice about the reported campaign finance development."
"As you know, the vice president has cooperated fully with the investigation every step of the way," Kennedy said in a statement. "What we have heard is a Republican senator making his announcement about the investigation."
Specter said he felt sorry for Gore, saying that the matter could have been cleared up a long time ago had Reno acted on recommendations as far back as 1997 to seek an independent counsel to look into Gore's fund-raising activities.
"I think the attorney general has done a grave disservice to Vice President Gore in not acting on the investigation back in 1997, when Director Freeh recommended it, or in 1998 when LaBella recommended it," Specter said. "Now the matter is coming to a head again, and we are in the middle of a presidential campaign."
That concern will not prevent Republicans from grilling Reno about the possible appointment of a special counsel when she appears Tuesday before the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee that is investigating the fund-raising issues.
The independent counsel law expired last June, but the attorney general retains the right to seek a special counsel to conduct an investigation independent of the Justice Department.
The appointment of a special counsel would not necessarily lead to any formal accusations or indictments. And it would almost certainly not conclude before the presidential election. Because a special counsel, unlike an independent counsel, must report to Justice Department officials, LaBella said, senior Justice officials could drag out any new investigation well beyond the election.
"They can tie people up five ways," LaBella said.
Yesterday, the independent counsel, Robert W. Ray, wrapped up his investigation into the 1993 firing of those in the White House travel office, declining to seek indictments. In January 1996, Ray's predecessor, Kenneth W. Starr, had begun investigating whether Hillary Rodham Clinton had lied to congressional auditors when she told them that she "did not direct" the firing of travel office staff.
Ray reported yesterday that he had "substantial evidence" that the first lady played a role in the firings, by discussing her concerns about the staff with top White House officials. That "produced a momentum to take immediate action," Ray concluded.
But, he wrote, "the evidence was insufficient to prove that ... Mrs. Clinton made any knowingly false statements, committed perjury, or obstructed justice in the matter."
Joe Lockhart, the White House spokesman, said last night that "after seven years and the expense of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, the independent counsel confirms what we have said all along: There is no evidence that the first lady did anything wrong."