By Michael Grunwald
A former aide's handwritten notes on a Democratic National Committee memo have raised questions about Vice President Gore's longstanding contention that he did not directly solicit money for President Clinton's 1996 campaign, federal law enforcement sources said yesterday.
The memo has prompted the Justice Department to reopen its investigation of Gore, who has insisted that his 45 fund-raising calls to Democratic donors in 1995 and 1996 were only requests for "soft money" that would go to the party's general efforts, not "hard money" specifically for the Clinton campaign. The new questions about Gore's role could prove embarrassing to Attorney General Janet Reno, who last December emphatically declared that Gore did not solicit hard money.
Justice Department investigators have focused on a notation David Strauss, then Gore's deputy chief of staff, scribbled on a Nov. 21, 1995, memo from four DNC officials: "65% soft/35% hard." The notation is followed by a scrawled definition of soft money: "corporate or anything over $20K from an individual."
Sources close to the investigation said those notes -- taken during a DNC finance meeting also attended by the president, the vice president and former deputy White House chief of staff Harold M. Ickes -- are not necessarily conclusive, but could cast doubt on Gore's protestations that he never intended to solicit hard money.
Other notations by Strauss, while less relevant to the investigation, may have more resonance with voters because they suggest how eager Gore was to dial for dollars in 1996. For example, next to agenda items suggesting that Gore make 10 phone calls and attend two fund-raising events, compared with 18 to 20 calls and two events by the president and two events for the first lady, Strauss noted Gore's enthusiastic reaction: "VP: 'Is it possible to do a reallocation for me to take more of the events and the calls?' " Next to a summary estimating that the various events and calls would raise a total of $3.2 million, Strauss wrote: "VP: 'Count me in on the calls.' "
Strauss, who is now executive director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., declined comment last night. Gore was interviewed by Justice investigators shortly before he left for a vacation in Hawaii last week, and his spokesman, Chris Lehane, said the vice president continues to deny any wrongdoing.
"Whenever this process ends, we are confident it will show that everything the vice president did was legal and proper," Lehane said.
Still, the memo, whose existence was first reported in yesterday's New York Times, has caused some consternation for Reno, who declared last December that she had found "clear and convincing evidence" that Gore did not solicit hard money when she terminated her review of his fund-raising calls. At the time, she declared "insubstantial" the allegations that Gore had violated election laws prohibiting hard-money solicitations on federal property, and concluded she had no "reasonable grounds for further investigation."
Reno has now reopened that review, but federal law enforcement sources said they still doubt that Reno will seek the appointment of an independent counsel to look into the calls, although they said she could launch a 90-day preliminary inquiry. The department already had copies of the memo -- which was subtitled "RE: Additional DNC Fundraising Requests" and addressed to Ickes, the White House liaison to the campaign -- but it only recently came into possession of Strauss's annotated copy.
Still, Reno said in December that even if Gore had solicited hard money on federal property, she would not seek an independent counsel without evidence of "aggravating circumstances," such as efforts to coerce federal employees into involuntary donations. Ultimately, she seems to agree with the statement Gore repeated so often during his much-ridiculed news conference last March: There is "no controlling legal authority" governing his fund-raising calls from the White House.
"This doesn't look good, but the attorney general's been pretty clear about the law," one source said. "She's not going to appoint an I.C. for something that no one would prosecute."
The sources said Reno is much more likely to seek an independent counsel to investigate Ickes, the White House point man for the Clinton-Gore reelection effort. She is under intense pressure from congressional Republicans to seek an outside probe for campaign finances, and she said yesterday that she will brief key senators on her progress in the next few days.
Reno is reviewing a 100-page memo written by Charles G. LaBella, the outgoing head of her campaign finance task force, and a 27-page memo written by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh. Both memos vigorously urge the attorney general to appoint an independent counsel, and a House committee has already cited her for contempt for refusing to disclose them. But she reiterated yesterday that she will make her decision based on evidence, not on pressure.
"I make the best decision I can," she said. "If I get threatened, I still make the decision, and if it turns out wrong for me, that's too bad. . . . I get fussed at one way, and I get cussed at the other way. I'm never going to be Miss Popularity in this business."
Reno is expected to decide in the next few days whether to begin a 90-day preliminary inquiry into the Gore and Ickes matters, although aides pointed out that she could skip that step and seek an independent counsel at any time.
If she does seek an outside probe of Ickes, Republicans are anxious to see whether it is limited to the narrow question of whether he committed perjury during his testimony to a Senate committee, or whether it will extend to the entire Clinton-Gore fund-raising operation. House and Senate committees investigating campaign-related allegations have concluded that regardless of the legality of specific fund-raising calls, an independent counsel is needed to investigate whether Democrats engaged in a broad conspiracy to evade campaign finance laws.
"Ickes is in the middle of everything," one GOP staff member said. "If they take a real look at Ickes, they have to take a real look at Clinton and Gore. That's when it gets good."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company