Reno Rejects Probe of Gore on Lying
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 1998; Page A1
Attorney General Janet Reno announced yesterday that she has decided against seeking an independent counsel to investigate whether Vice President Gore lied to Justice Department officials during an investigation last year of fund-raising phone calls he placed from his White House office during the 1996 campaign, declaring there are "no reasonable grounds" to pursue a case against him.
"Taken altogether, I find the evidence fails to provide any reasonable support for a conclusion that the Vice President may have lied," Reno said in a 19-page document filed yesterday with the special panel of three federal judges that oversees the independent counsel process.
Reno's decision, reached after a 90-day preliminary investigation, removes a potentially serious obstacle to Gore's presidential hopes and greatly diminishes the likelihood that he will ever be the principal target of an investigation into alleged fund-raising abuses during the 1996 campaign. Gore was "pleased" by Reno's decision, his spokesman, Chris Lehane said in a brief statement. "Vice President Gore will continue focusing on what he has been doing – working with the president to prepare America for the 21st century," Lehane said.
Reno's inquiry focused on whether Gore intentionally lied last year when he told investigators about the financing of a Democratic National Committee media campaign that filled the airwaves in the early stages of the 1996 race. Gore described the financing scheme inaccurately, but his statements were dismissed as an innocent mistake at the time. Then, in July, Gore's office voluntarily turned over a memo by a former Gore aide indicating that the actual financing methods had been discussed at a DNC budget meeting that Gore attended on Nov. 21, 1995.
The preliminary investigation set out to determine whether Gore honestly believed his mistaken version of the financing scheme. Reno concluded that he did, though that view was not unanimous within the Justice Department.
Senior department officials split sharply over how to interpret the evidence, with FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and others arguing that there was enough proof potentially indicating deliberate lies to justify turning the matter over to an outside prosecutor, according to officials familiar with the deliberations.
Reno presided over an extensive debate among senior department staff on Monday, but she did not make known her own conclusions until yesterday just hours before a deadline set by law was about to expire, according to the officials.
As on several other occasions when she has declined to seek an independent counsel for 1996 campaign finance matters, Reno narrowly focused the Gore investigation and the terms on which she subsequently evaluated the results. Republicans frustrated by her refusal to find grounds for appointing an independent counsel to investigate allegations of campaign finance improprieties by either President Clinton or Gore during their reelection effort renewed their criticism yesterday.
"Whether an independent counsel should be appointed to investigate narrow issues such as the improper placement of phone calls or misstatements to investigators is not the issue," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a frequent critic of Reno's handling of the campaign finance probe. "What is at stake is whether the public's confidence in the rule of law and the integrity of the Department of Justice will be further eroded by this administration. ... "
The inquiry that concluded yesterday dealt only with Gore's statements to investigators last year that when he raised money for the DNC media campaign with phone calls from the White House he believed that the entire effort was financed with "soft money," loosely regulated funds that are typically donated to political organizations. By contrast, "hard money" is strictly regulated and goes to individual candidates running for elective office.
At the time of Gore's statement, Reno was investigating the phone calls and had already declared that if the calls were meant to raise hard money they might be illegal but that if they only resulted in soft-money donations there would be no violation on the prohibition against political fund-aising on federal property.
Hand-written notes taken by David Strauss, Gore's former deputy chief of staff, at the November 1995 DNC budget meeting indicate there was a discussion of the actual funding formula for the DNC ads that involved a mix of hard and soft funds eventually totaling $44 million. In addition, the notes correctly refer to the dollar limits placed on soft money contributions to the DNC, another matter on which Gore made inaccurate statements to investigators.
"While the vice president was present at the meeting, there is no evidence that he heard the statements or understood their implications, so as to suggest the falsity of his statement two years later that he believed the media fund was entirely soft money," Reno said in yesterday's filing.
All 15 people who attended the meeting, including Clinton and Gore, were either interviewed or gave statements to investigators, but they provided such "a range of impressions and vague misunderstandings," Reno said, that there is no basis for concluding that Gore would have learned an accurate version of the financing plan at that session.
That left "only weak circumstantial evidence of the vice president's knowledge," and not enough to justify further investigation, Reno concluded. Having decided that Gore could be telling the truth about what he believed – even if that belief was inaccurate – there was no need to determine whether he would have had a motive for lying or whether his inaccurate statement was in any way connected to other statements or actions in the campaign financing controversy. If questions of motive had been raised and left unresolved, Reno would have been obliged by law to seek an independent counsel investigation.
Although yesterday's decision closes one important chapter in the campaign finance probe, Reno has two other similar decisions still pending. Next Monday she faces a deadline on whether to seek an independent counsel investigation of alleged false statements by former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, and by Dec. 7 she will have to decide whether an independent counsel should look into Clinton's management of the DNC media campaign.
Fred Wertheimer, a proponent of campaign finance reform, said Gore could be damaged if Reno appoints an independent counsel in either of the remaining campaign finance probes.
"The huge one," Wertheimer said, is the investigation of Clinton. "That has critical ramifications not just for President Clinton, but for Vice President Gore and for other top-level campaign and White House officials who were involved in the fund-raising preparation, direction and execution," of the DNC media blitz.
Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.
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