Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 21, 1997;
The Justice Department announced yesterday that it has taken the first step in a process that could lead to the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate allegations that President Clinton made illegal 1996 fund-raising telephone calls from the White House.
The decision by Attorney General Janet Reno was based on new information that Clinton may have made the telephone calls from the White House to solicit campaign contributions, sources said. The review is the first step in a process Reno must follow to recommend appointment of an independent counsel.
The president's lawyers were notified of the review by the Justice Department on Friday and informed Clinton, who was traveling in California, yesterday. White House officials said they would cooperate with the probe. "We are confident no laws were broken," said Lanny Davis, a spokesman for the White House counsel's office.
Clinton has said he does not remember whether he made any fund-raising calls, and White House attorneys have said there is no clear legal precedent to show that such calls would violate federal election law.
The Justice Department decision, made during the past week, comes two weeks after Reno ordered a similar review of fund-raising solicitations by Vice President Gore from his White House office. The reviews, which must last 30 days, are to determine whether there is "specific and credible" information that Clinton or Gore violated the prohibition against campaign fund-raising on federal property. If the review uncovers such information, Reno must order a 90-day preliminary investigation to determine whether she should seek an independent counsel.
Reno ordered the review of the president's fund-raising activities late last week after investigators examined records that indicated Clinton may have made telephone solicitations from the White House and that the contributions may have resulted in funds that went into strictly regulated "hard money" accounts.
Gore has said that he solicited campaign contributions by telephone from the White House, but he has insisted that "no controlling legal authority" showed that they violated any laws. In Clinton's case there are both factual issues as to what he did as well as the complex questions of how the law should be interpreted in what experts agree is an unprecedented set of circumstances.
Several documents that have become public during the investigation of alleged campaign fund-raising abuses indicate that Clinton was asked by his staff to solicit contributions by phone.
At a March 7 news conference, Clinton was asked about comments by White House press secretary Michael McCurry in which McCurry allowed for the possibility that Clinton made fund-raising calls from the White House. Clinton said, "I told him to leave that possibility open because I'm not sure frankly."
Elaborating on that, Clinton said that he preferred to raise money face-to-face, "but I can't say, over all the hundreds and hundreds and maybe thousands of phone calls I've made in the last four years, that I never said to anybody while I was talking to them, 'Well, we need your help,' or 'I hope you'll help us.'"
Davis said yesterday that the White House is doing nothing more to determine whether such calls were made: "We have no plans to further review the issue of the telephone calls. We don't believe he made calls but he might have."
In a deposition to congressional investigators looking into campaign fund-raising practices, Harold Ickes, former White House deputy chief of staff, said Clinton would sometimes agree to make phone calls but then fail to do so even when call sheets were left on his desk. Ickes, however, also indicated that Clinton did make some calls to donors, but White House officials insist that none of those calls involved a request for a donation or an agreement that "closed the deal."
David Kendall, Clinton's criminal defense lawyer, said yesterday, "No laws were broken, and any kind of enforcement action would be absolutely unprecedented. We intend to cooperate with the Department of Justice, and this matter should be resolved speedily."
Aside from the factual question of whether Clinton made phone calls that involved solicitations, White House officials and others who defend the actions of the president and the vice president have raised a series of legal issues to show that the calls did not violate any laws even if they were made.
While not commenting on the specific issues raised by White House defenders, Reno and other senior Justice Department officials acknowledge that several important areas of federal election law are unclear and some of the questions raised by the phone calls have never been tested in court.
One line of defense is that such telephone calls would not violate the prohibition on campaign fund-raising on federal property because the people being solicited were not on that property but far away in their homes or offices. Another argument is that the law was never meant to bar the solicitation of willing donors but was meant to protect federal workers who might be intimidated by supervisors seeking political contributions.
If Clinton made any phone calls from the residential areas of the White House, lawyers could raise a traditional distinction that such areas are not considered a federal place of business and that therefore fund-raising could be undertaken there.
Yet another defense raised by Clinton and Gore lawyers is that when money was solicited the intent was for it to go into relatively unregulated "soft money" accounts, not so-called hard money that is aimed at electing a specific candidate. Reno accepted this reasoning last spring when she initially decided not to conduct a 90-day preliminary investigation of Gore's solicitations.
However, after The Washington Post reported that more than $100,000 of the money raised by Gore went into hard money accounts, Reno ordered a 30-day review of Gore's actions.
While it is clear that Gore made calls that resulted in contributions, less is known about the president's fund-raising activities.
For example, call sheets filled out for Clinton show that he was asked in February 1996 to solicit a contribution from Gail Zappa, the widow of musician Frank Zappa. That summer she made a $30,000 contribution to the Democratic National Committee, $20,000 of which was deposited in a hard money account. However, whether Clinton ever called Zappa or whether she made the contribution in response to some other solicitation is unknown.
In another case the White House acknowledges that Clinton called Robert Meyerhoff, a Maryland businessman who made a $100,000 donation to the DNC, and that the call may have been made from the Oval Office. However, White House officials say that Clinton called Meyerhoff to thank him for agreeing to make the contribution, which Clinton did for many donors who already had been solicited by others and had committed themselves to make donations.
In an unhappy coincidence for the White House, the news of Reno's review broke on a day Clinton was in San Francisco for three separate DNC fund-raisers, which were projected to raise just shy of a $1 million.
Reno has been under heavy pressure from Republican congressional leaders to appoint an independent counsel to examine a wide range of alleged fund-raising abuses by the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. Reno had conducted several 30-day reviews of allegations against Clinton, Gore and their aides, in response to formal congressional requests but in each case had concluded there was insufficient evidence to continue the independent counsel process.
The Clinton and Gore reviews ordered this month were initiated on the basis of information developed by federal investigators rather than in response to congressional requests.
Harris reported from California, Suro from Washington.
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