Inching closer toward appointment of a special prosecutor in the expanding campaign finance controversy, the Justice Department said Wednesday it is reviewing a new set of allegations involving campaign funds solicited by Vice President Al Gore.
The development came after an embarrassed Democratic National Committee said it had funneled $120,000 raised by Gore into a “hard money” account without the knowledge of either Gore or the six donors and would now move the funds into a different account.
“The Justice Department is reviewing whether allegations that the vice president illegally solicited campaign contributions on federal property should warrant a preliminary investigation under the independent counsel act,” the Justice Department said.
The statement suggested that Attorney General Janet Reno was moving closer to setting in motion the formal steps that would lead to appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the controversy.
Republican lawmakers had renewed their call for an independent investigation of Democratic fund raising, saying the fact that the money flowed into the “hard” account had knocked the props out from under Reno’s justification for resisting such a probe.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who has consistently demanded appointment of an independent counsel, said that it is now “pretty hard” for Reno “to say there’s no basis for an independent counsel.”
Her reasoning for opposing the counsel “was slim” before, but now “it has evaporated,” Specter said. “It’s pretty certain where it’s going. I don’t think the Justice Department would start this without knowing where it’s headed.”
In addition to increasing the pressure on Reno to request a special prosecutor, the revelation - which was first reported Wednesday by The Washington Post - served to refocus attention on Gore’s controversial 1996 fund-raising efforts just as the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee holds hearings today on the same subject.
Among those scheduled to appear are three nuns from a California Buddhist temple where Gore appeared at a fund-raiser last year. They are expected to testify under a grant of immunity about how they were used to launder contributions to the DNC, something about which Gore has denied any knowledge.
Later, the committee is expected to examine the 46 phone calls to potential contributors Gore has acknowledged making from the White House in late 1995 and early 1996 and the $620,000 in commitments the calls brought in.
Those calls have triggered accusations that Gore violated a century-old law prohibiting solicitation of contributions in federal offices. That accusation was one of several cited by Republican lawmakers in their calls for appointment of an independent counsel.
In rejecting that demand in April, Reno cited as one of her reasons the fact that the law in question was changed by Congress in 1979 to bar only solicitation of contributions “commonly referred to as ‘hard money’ ” - that is, donations covered by the restrictions and limitations of federal campaign-finance law and given for the purpose of influencing the outcome of a federal election.
The rewritten law, Reno reasoned, did not cover “soft money” - funds donated to national or state political parties ostensibly for the purpose of financing party-building activities rather than federal election campaigns. There is no legal limit on the amount of such contributions and no prohibition on the use of funds from corporate or union treasuries for that purpose, as there are on hard-money donations.