Reno to Lengthen ProbeBy Roberto Suro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 1997; Page A01
Attorney General Janet Reno yesterday took the next step in a legal process that could lead to an independent counsel investigation of President Clinton's phone calls to donors, saying she needed more time to determine whether there is evidence he made any illegal solicitations from the White House.
Faced with a deadline today to either extend the probe or drop it, Reno told a special three-judge panel yesterday that she decided to move to the preliminary investigation allowed under the Independent Counsel Act to resolve several factual and legal questions.
"I have been unable to determine whether there is sufficient specific and credible evidence to suggest a violation of federal criminal law" by Clinton, Reno said in her notification to the judges, citing "the complexity of the factual and legal issues presented by this matter."
The preliminary investigation begun yesterday will examine only whether Clinton may have violated a federal law prohibiting campaign fund-raising on federal property by making phone calls to solicit contributions in support of his 1996 reelection effort.
Reno's decision is an important step in the process that could lead her to recommend the appointment of an independent counsel, but Justice Department officials emphasized that it does not indicate investigators have found evidence of wrongdoing or that Reno is now more likely to seek an independent counsel.
Vice President Gore is the subject of a similar investigation regarding his fund-raising telephone calls from the White House. Reno must report back to the panel of judges on both inquiries by Dec. 2. At that point, under the law, she can either recommend that the judges appoint an independent counsel, seek a 60-day extension to continue the investigation, or announce that there are "no reasonable grounds" to continue the inquiry into the Clinton and Gore phone calls.
The president's involvement in controversial fund-raising practices during last year's campaign has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks with the inquiry into his phone calls, the release of previously undisclosed videotapes of his appearances at White House political events with Democratic contributors and negotiations between the White House and the Justice Department to arrange for Clinton to be interviewed by investigators.
The scope of a potential interview and the circumstances under which it would be conducted are still being discussed, but it will not necessarily be limited to fund-raising phone calls, officials said.
Clinton, who is on a week-long trip to South America that began Sunday, said yesterday in response to Reno's decision to order a preliminary investigation, "There is a law and a fact-finding process, and I'm going to cooperate with it."
Responding to questions at a news conference in Brasilia, Clinton repeated a complaint he has raised several times in recent days as Republican leaders have escalated their criticism of Reno for rejecting their demands to seek an independent counsel. "I don't feel good about the explicit, overbearing attempt to politicize this process," Clinton said.
Clinton's lawyer David E. Kendall said in a statement, "In view of the many issues the Department of Justice must resolve, today's announcement is hardly surprising." Kendall said he was confident that at the end of a thorough investigation, "it will be clear that there are no grounds for the appointment of an independent counsel."
Reno took the first step in the independent counsel process a 30-day review on Sept. 15 after receiving information indicating that Clinton may have made fund-raising calls from his White House office, Justice Department officials said. The deadline for that phase of the process expires today, but Reno decided to announce her decision a day early to get it out of the way before she makes a long-scheduled appearance before the House Judiciary Committee this morning.
Although Reno is now moving forward with investigations of both Clinton and Gore under the independent counsel process, she continues to reject demands by Republicans and public interest groups that she step aside and seek an independent counsel immediately to ensure a more objective investigation.
The preliminary investigations of Clinton and Gore involve several complex legal questions that Reno will have to resolve with personal judgments because there are no clear legal precedents to guide her, Justice Department officials said. For example, Reno has acknowledged that the law on fund-raising on federal property has never been applied to telephone calls from the White House.
Reno must also explore several factual issues. Clinton has said he cannot remember whether he ever asked for campaign funds in telephone conversations with donors and potential donors. Investigators on a Justice Department campaign finance task force told Reno they have not been able to fully interview all the campaign donors Clinton apparently contacted, officials said.
Harold Ickes, former White House deputy chief of staff, said in a deposition to congressional investigators this summer that Clinton sometimes agreed to make phone calls seeking contributions but then failed to do so. Ickes and other White House officials have suggested Clinton may have called donors to thank them for their support rather than to solicit.
At a March 7 news conference, Clinton said he preferred to raise money face to face, "but I can't say over all the hundreds and hundreds and maybe thousands of 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.' "
Aside from deciding whether Clinton solicited contributions, investigators must examine at least two other factual issues, officials said. They must determine where the phone calls were made from because presidents have traditionally been allowed to conduct political events in the residential areas of the White House.
If Clinton did raise money from the office areas of the White House, investigators will then have to track the use of the money. Reno has said that the law prohibiting fund-raising from federal offices applies only to what are known as "hard money" contributions, which are strictly regulated and can be used on behalf of individual candidates. No wrongdoing would be involved, she has said, if the Clinton solicitations resulted in donations of largely unregulated "soft money," which is used by political parties for a variety of purposes such as voter registration drives.
The Independent Counsel Act sets strict rules for the FBI agents and Justice Department attorneys seeking answers to these questions. On the one hand, the investigators have had greater latitude to examine Clinton's actions since Reno initiated the process in September. But now that she has ordered the more intensive preliminary investigation, the agents and attorneys are prohibited by the independent counsel law from issuing subpoenas, compelling testimony before a grand jury, granting immunity from prosecution to witnesses or entering into plea bargains in exchange for testimony.
Last Friday, Reno rejected a request from Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee that she seek an independent counsel to investigate a broad range of alleged fund-raising abuses by Clinton, his aides and supporters.
Although the preliminary investigations of Clinton and Gore were not initiated directly in response to the Republicans' request, under the law, the timing of the investigation is determined by their letter. Hence, the preliminary investigations of the Gore and Clinton White House calls must be concluded by Dec. 2, 90 days from the date of the Republicans' letter the Judiciary Committee's letter was sent. Another preliminary investigation into allegations that then-Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary solicited a bribe, in the form of a donation to charity by Democratic fund-raiser Johnny Chung, also must be completed by that date.
Meanwhile, the White House last night began delivering to the Justice Department and House and Senate investigators a new batch of videotapes, totaling more than 90 hours, White House officials said. The rest will probably be turned over today. Officials said they show the president making fund-raising speeches and shaking hands in hotel ballrooms and other settings from coast to coast.
White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis said, "We are confident the tapes will show nothing wrong or illegal and indeed are fully consistent with what we have previously described as appropriate political and fund-raising events."
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