Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision Friday to extend the investigation of Vice President Al Gore’s fund raising brings the appointment of an independent counsel a step closer, but is no guarantee that one will be named.
As expected, Reno sent four one-page documents to a federal appellate court, notifying the judges of her decision to continue a preliminary investigation into phone calls Gore made from his White House office.
This phase of the investigation will last for 60 days. Then Reno must decide whether to clear Gore or to seek an independent counsel to investigate whether he violated the law by soliciting donations while on federal property.
Reno’s investigators already have been examining the telephone calls for the past 30 days.
In a two-paragraph notice, Reno wrote that “because of the complexity of the factual and legal issues presented by this matter,” she had been unable to determine whether there is “sufficient and credible” evidence to suggest a violation of federal criminal law.
Reno’s decision is a blow for Gore, who has said he made 46 telephone calls from his office seeking funds, but has said he did nothing wrong. Opinion polls show the allegations already have hurt his public image.
“I remain totally confident that what I did was legal and proper,” Gore told reporters in Tampa, Fla., after learning of Reno’s decision.
He said the decision was not surprising, “simply because of the amount of paper that they had to review and the amount of work that they had to do.”
Besides issuing her decision on Gore, Reno was planning to take other action on the campaign-finance tangle.
Despite extreme pressure from Republicans to intensify the investigation, she has decided to reject a request from Republican lawmakers for an independent prosecutor to investigate fund-raising practices involving former Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary, Gore and President Clinton. These practices included invitations to White House coffees and Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers for top Democratic donors.
Reno’s decisions Friday do not affect an ongoing 30-day review of President Clinton’s telephone solicitations. She must decide by Oct. 15 whether to expand that inquiry.
The next stage of the Gore investigation, like the original one, will be conducted by people in the Justice Department. The investigators will not have the power to issue subpoenas, convene grand juries, plea bargain or grant immunity. If they find evidence that Gore broke the law, Reno must ask a three-judge panel to name an independent prosecutor to take over.
One thing Justice Department investigators are examining is whether Gore knew that some money he was raising was going into “hard money” accounts, intended for specific candidates. Gore has said he thought he was raising money for another kind of purpose, known as “soft money” accounts, which go for party-building expenses. Reno has said that the law prohibiting solicitation on federal property doesn’t cover soft-money contributions.
xxxx SEPARATE INQUIRY Reno’s decisions Friday do not affect an ongoing 30-day review of President Clinton’s telephone solicitations. She must decide by Oct. 15 whether to expand that inquiry.