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Mr. Gore's Phone Calls – Again

Friday, August 28, 1998; Page A24

Attorney General Janet Reno has, once again, opened a 90-day preliminary investigation under the independent counsel law related to Vice President Gore's spree of dialing-for-dollars from his White House office. To be exact, she now is examining whether Mr. Gore made false statements concerning the 1995 phone solicitations the last time she conducted a preliminary investigation to determine whether an independent counsel should examine the matter.

The issue the last time around hinged, to some extent, on what kind of money Mr. Gore had solicited. The law against soliciting campaign contributions on federal property does not apply to unregulated "soft money" donations, which are technically not federal campaign contributions at all. So as long as Mr. Gore was raising only soft money, he was in the clear even if -- as subsequently happened -- some of that money ended up being diverted by the Democratic National Committee into hard-money accounts.

Mr. Gore, who was interviewed by investigators during the last preliminary investigation, insisted that he believed he was raising only soft money. And in December, Ms. Reno declined to appoint an independent counsel when she found that there was "clear and convincing evidence" that he had not asked for hard money. But Ms. Reno went further, noting that even if he had, it wouldn't, in itself, be prosecutable: "[T]he established policy of the Department of Justice requires the presence of aggravating circumstances before a prosecution of [this type] is warranted, and there is no evidence of any such circumstance here."

The recent disclosure of a memorandum suggesting Mr. Gore may have known he was bringing in hard money does not appear to have caused the Justice Department to reexamine the phone calls themselves. The vice president's possible misstatements alone may not constitute an "aggravating circumstance," so Mr. Gore could well be safe from further trouble on the question of which phone can be used to raise what money from whom.

But the issue of lying to investigators is never trivial. It is one the Justice Department has had some trouble settling definitively in other preliminary investigations in the past. Unless the department can show clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Gore did not knowingly make false statements, the matter will have to be resolved by an independent counsel.

Ms. Reno received quick criticism for lopping off a piece of the campaign finance matter for further review under the independent counsel law. In our judgment, she did the right thing. Whatever one thinks about whether the whole campaign finance imbroglio should be handled outside of her department, the question of whether Mr. Gore made false statements to investigators is a separate matter that can and should be examined on its own terms.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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