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Experts Differ on 1883 Provision's Applicability to Clinton, Gore (Washington Post, Oct. 2)

Aides Advise Special Counsel Probe of Fund-Raising Calls

By Roberto Suro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 1997; Page A04

Attorney General Janet Reno is considering legal advice that she must move forward to the next stage of an inquiry that could lead to the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate telephone fund-raising solicitations by President Clinton and Vice President Gore because too many questions remain unanswered, officials said yesterday.

Reno has until Friday to report to a special panel of federal appeals court judges on the results of a 30-day review of Gore's fund-raising activities. The deadline for deciding on a similar review of phone calls by Clinton is Oct. 15.

Aides to Reno said yesterday that she had not made a final decision but was questioning Justice Department officials about the facts of the situation, their legal analysis and her options.

Under procedures strictly defined by the Independent Counsel Act, the only factor Reno can consider during the review is whether specific information from a credible source indicates that the president, vice president or other high official covered by the law may have committed a crime. If she finds such information, Reno is obliged to open a preliminary investigation to determine whether she should seek an independent counsel and tell the judges of her decision.

Members of the Justice Department task force investigating reports of campaign finance wrongdoing and other senior members of the department have advised Reno that if there is any uncertainty about the information and how the law applies to it, the independent counsel statute requires her to proceed with a preliminary investigation.

The chief prosecutor on the task force, Charles G. LaBella, has met with Reno several times this week, officials said, but it was not known what if any recommendation he had made to her.

White House officials were resigned to the opening of a preliminary investigation and tried to cast such a development in a positive light.

"It would not be unreasonable if the attorney general wanted to take some additional time to review what the law is," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry. "There are some advantages to . . . a three-month review period because you can begin to look at the law and people can present facts so we could dispose of these matters."

Administration officials said yesterday that Gore's newly hired private attorneys and his White House lawyers have been in regular contact with Justice Department officials in recent days to begin presenting their views of the facts and the applicable laws.

Gore has acknowledged making at least 46 fund-raising phone calls from his White House office. Reno ordered the 30-day review of the solicitations on Sept. 3 because Democratic National Committee documents showed that some of the money went into strictly regulated "hard money" campaign accounts. As a result, the calls may have violated a prohibition against fund-raising on federal property.

However, some factual issues, such as exactly how many calls were made and what contributions they produced, remain unresolved because Gore's office did not keep complete records of his telephone solicitations. Clinton has said he cannot remember whether he made such calls.

Besides the analysis of the calls, Reno and several groups of Justice Department officials have been considering an array of legal questions. Although the law on fund-raising from federal property dates to 1883, it has never been applied to the telephone solicitation of campaign money.

Echoing an opinion voiced frequently by defenders of the White House, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said yesterday that Reno cannot seek the appointment of an independent counsel if she determines "that it hasn't been the policy or practice of the Department of Justice to prosecute a solicitation" of the sort in question.

When Reno was asked last week whether she would be able to resolve all the legal issues raised by the independent counsel reviews, she said: "I don't know whether we will resolve it by next Friday because, as I indicated to you last week, what one tries to do in these situations is make sure that you have the facts and that you apply the law to the facts. The facts, as they develop, may indicate that the law is applied in different ways."

Staff writers John F. Harris and Peter Baker contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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