September 20, 1997 in Nation/World

Vice President Hires Lawyers In Funds Probe Justice Department Investigation Gets Intense

Stephen Labaton New York Times

With momentum building at the Justice Department for the appointment of a new independent counsel to investigate his campaign fund-raising practices, Vice President Al Gore has hired two former Watergate prosecutors in hopes of heading off the appointment - or failing that - to defend him.

“The vice president wanted private counsel so he can get his position presented directly and personally to the Department of Justice,” said Lorraine Voles, Gore’s chief spokeswoman. “He has instructed his private counsel to continue to cooperate fully with the department.”

White House officials said that Gore had retained James F. Neal, a Tennessee litigator and former prosecutor under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and George T. Frampton Jr., who served in the first Clinton administration as an assistant secretary of the interior and before that was the president of the Wilderness Society. Frampton also served under Neal when Neal was the chief Watergate prosecutor in the 1970s.

Gore is under investigation by the campaign financing task force of the Justice Department for his fund-raising activities last year on behalf of the Democratic National Committee.

As Gore has shifted his account of the activities, including scores of telephone calls that he made from his White House office to solicit donations for the Democratic Party, Justice Department officials have intensified their investigation.

Some critics and Republican lawmakers have said that Gore’s telephone solicitations broke a federal law that prohibits government officials from seeking campaign contributions on federal property. But Gore and his aides have said the law, which is rarely used by prosecutors, is meant to apply to government officials seeking to pressure their subordinates for donations.

The aides have also said that the law did not apply because the donors whom Gore solicited were not on federal property at the time the donations were being sought.

In originally declining to recommend an independent counsel, Attorney General Janet Reno explained that the law was not applicable because it was meant to apply only to so-called “hard money,” the campaign contributions raised directly for candidates and regulated by federal campaign law.

Reno’s analysis of the law was undermined, however, when it was revealed earlier this month that Gore had solicited donations that wound up in hard money accounts of the Democratic Party.

Confronted with a welter of new allegations, some officials at the Justice Department have begun discussing the possibility of an independent counsel before the end of the year, as the law permits. Some officials have said in recent days that they fear that the Justice Department may no longer have the credibility to carry out the investigation.

Although some experts in criminal and federal election law say that Gore is not likely to be prosecuted based on what is known of his involvement in fund raising, the prospects of a new independent counsel and the timing of the investigation could prove fatal to his ambitions to run for president in 2000. News accounts of Gore’s fund-raising activities have already sharply eroded his standing in public opinion polls.

The selection of Neal, 68, one of the nation’s most well-known trial lawyers, and Frampton, a widely respected Washington lawyer, was seen as an effort by Gore to hire advocates who could make the best case to the department for why an independent counsel is unnecessary. But even if that fails, Gore would then have two skilled and experienced lawyers to handle the next step at what could be the most sensitive time in his rising career.

Neal achieved national recognition when he successfully prosecuted James R. Hoffa, the Teamsters leader, on jury tampering charges in 1964. After that prosecution, he was appointed U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, a position he held until 1966, when he entered private law practice.

In 1973, the day after Archibald Cox was sworn in as special Watergate prosecutor, he called Neal to handle many of the most important and sensitive aspects of the inquiry.

In 1980, Neal again made headlines when he led the legal team that successfully defended Ford Motor Co. against charges brought by Indiana authorities of reckless homicide for problems with the gas tanks of Ford Pintos that tended to explode when the car was hit from the rear. At the time, the criminal charges brought against Ford had been the most serious ever lodged against an American corporation.

Frampton, 53, began his career as a clerk to Justice Harry A. Blackmun in 1971 after graduating from Yale College and Harvard Law School. Recruited by Cox, his former law professor at Harvard, he joined the Watergate prosecution in 1973. He later co-wrote a book about Watergate, “Stonewall: The Real Story of the Watergate Prosecution.”

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