Justice Failed to Review Legality of Gore White House SolicitationsBy Roberto Suro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 6, 1997; Page A1
Justice Department investigators failed for more than five months to review Vice President Gore's claims that he acted legally in seeking campaign contributions from his White House office in 1995-96 and only learned of potential problems with the solicitations from a newspaper article this week, senior department officials said yesterday.
"It was a matter of priorities," said a senior official, explaining why a Justice Department task force investigating allegations of campaign fund-raising illegalities never traced the use of the contributions. The investigators were preoccupied with other matters, the official said.
Attorney General Janet Reno ordered lawyers in the Justice Department's public integrity section to begin a review of Gore's White House solicitations after The Washington Post reported Wednesday that more than $120,000 he raised was deposited into legally restricted "hard money" accounts maintained by the Democratic National Committee.
"The first I heard of it was when I saw the article in The Washington Post," Reno said yesterday at her weekly news conference. ". . .It is my understanding that that is the first time that the public integrity section learned of it, as well."
On the basis of The Post article, Reno on Wednesday ordered a 30-day review of the Gore phone calls, and she said yesterday that it "involves only, specifically, the allegations of whether the vice president illegally solicited campaign contributions on federal property."
The review is the first step in the legal procedure the attorney general is required to follow before she makes a determination on recommending appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the Gore solicitations.
Traveling in New Hampshire yesterday, Gore predicted that the Justice Department review would result in a conclusion that his actions were "legal and appropriate."
"We're cooperating fully with the review. . .‚. We went the extra step of making it all public," Gore said in response to questions from reporters. "What this controversy shows again is the need for campaign finance reform."
When Gore's White House solicitations were first reported last March, Reno said they did not violate the prohibition against fund-raising on federal property because, as Gore maintained, he sought the funds for relatively unregulated "soft money" accounts. Based on that judgment, Reno refused congressional requests that she seek appointment of an independent counsel.
For nearly a year, Reno has repeatedly reassured her critics in Congress that the Justice Department task force now numbering some 90 prosecutors, FBI agents and support staff is aggressively probing all questionable campaign fund-raising practices in last year's elections in the absence of an independent counsel investigation.
Striking the same theme again yesterday, Reno said, "what we are trying to do is pursue all the leads . . . to make sure that we leave no stone unturned and that if the [independent counsel] statute is triggered, we trigger it."
Following yesterday's acknowledgment that the task force had failed to inquire about the previously unknown deposit of money raised by Gore into federally regulated hard money accounts, some Republicans said such reassurances had lost any value.
"Now there is really no basis for accepting the statement that they have this under control," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said.
A senior Justice Department official sought to explain the handling of the Gore inquiry yesterday, saying, "We are dealing with an investigation of enormous scope, involving literally millions of documents and dozens of different types of allegations, and it is not that anyone decided the Gore solicitations were not worth investigating further, but that the focus of our energies was elsewhere."
The Washington Post report that prompted the Justice Department to act this week was based on White House and DNC records that were publicly available at the time. Reno and senior Justice Department officials declined to say yesterday whether the department had acquired the records.
White House and DNC officials this week have defended Gore's actions by insisting that he never intended for the money he solicited to end up in hard money accounts and that he was not aware of the funds' ultimate disposition.
"In general, you have to show some kind of intent [in order] to allege a violation, and the depositing of these funds into hard money accounts by others does not change Gore's intent to solicit soft money contributions," said Jeff Connaughton, an attorney who previously served in the White House counsel's office.
Reno said yesterday that "under the independent counsel statute, the intent really is not at issue in the first 30 days; I cannot consider that."
This special feature of the law was inserted by Congress to restrict an attorney general's leeway when a top official's motives are at issue in an investigation. In this case, the provision removes a key element of Gore's defense, according to some criminal justice experts.
"Once you take the question of intent out of the picture, you are left with an apparent violation of the law hard money campaign funds solicited on federal property and in my opinion that will leave Reno no choice but to order further investigation," said Joseph E. DiGenova, a former federal prosecutor who served as an independent counsel.
If the 30-day review finds "specific and credible" information that Gore may have committed a crime, then Reno will be required by law to order a further 90-day preliminary investigation to decide whether an independent counsel is necessary.
Reno's leeway is further circumscribed, according to experts, by her repeated statements last spring that the distinction between hard money and soft money was the key to deciding whether an independent counsel should investigate Gore.
"They have been hung by their own petard because they said Gore's White House calls were legal because it was soft money and now it turns out to be hard money," said Bob Schiff, staff attorney at Public Citizen's Congress Watch.
Reno's position is all the more complicated because there are no precedents for a case in which a contribution apparently started out as soft money but ended up in a hard money account, according to Schiff and Justice Department officials. Reno has often said she will make judgments on whether to invoke the independent counsel statute based on an analysis of the law, but yesterday she acknowledged that absolute clarity may not be available in this case.
"I think that there are significant questions that need to be resolved with respect to the whole hard money-versus-soft money issue to ensure that it is clear," Reno said.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company