The recent plea bargains in the Justice Department's investigation of fund-raising by the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection effort do not portend a new wave of indictments.
Instead, the probe seems likely to end without producing charges against any officials at the White House, the Democratic National Committee or the Clinton-Gore campaign.
The clearest indication that the probe has peaked came last week, when the Justice Department announced that it had reached a deal with John Huang, a former official at the Commerce Department and the DNC who once loomed as a mysterious figure at the center of the campaign finance scandal.
Huang helped generate about $2 million in 1996 campaign contributions that the DNC ultimately returned because they came from illegal or suspect sources. He had long been considered the witness who could potentially connect illegal fund-raising to Washington policymakers and perhaps even to President Clinton.
However, Huang's plea agreement involves only an admission of guilt regarding two small contributions to Democratic campaigns in California in 1993 and 1994. According to Justice Department officials, the plea agreement, which is expected to be made public later this month, not only does not involve any admission of wrongdoing for any fund-raising during the 1996 campaign, it includes a statement from the department that no further charges will be brought against Huang.
In more than 20 interviews with investigators and prosecutors, Huang did not produce damning evidence against the White House and Democratic Party officials who had set him up as a fund-raiser, assigned him ambitious goals and welcomed the money he brought in, according to sources close to the investigation. With a statement in writing that, in effect, clears Huang of misdeeds in relation to the 1996 election, it will be difficult for prosecutors to accuse any of his superiors or colleagues of having participated in or countenanced illegal fund-raising by Huang.
Now, 31 months into the investigation, with the staff of the campaign finance task force down from a peak of 120 prosecutors and investigators to fewer than than 90, the Justice Department is not pursuing any avenues of inquiry that point clearly to possible wrongdoing in the top echelons of the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection effort, officials said.
Even if new investigative leads develop, officials said, the five-year statute of limitations on the early phases of the fund-raising in the last campaign will start to run out within months.
"You can ask whether the investigation was mishandled and failed to find whatever was there, but you also have to ask whether there ever really was anything there, whether any serious crimes were ever really committed," said an attorney representing a major figure in the case.
That query may never get an official answer because the Justice Department does not ordinarily offer explanations when it declines to bring charges.
The unofficial answer will forever be disputed because there have been so many controversies about the department's handling of the investigation for skeptics to claim that the truth was never uncovered.
Such a muddled outcome would have seemed farfetched two years ago when the scandal was at its peak. The FBI was chasing evidence of a Chinese plot to influence the 1996 election by making campaign contributions. Some investigators questioned whether Clinton had led a conspiracy to violate federal campaign laws. Republicans demanded investigations of hundreds of contributors who allegedly had bought their way into White House coffees and Lincoln bedroom overnights. And Republicans and some prominent advocates of campaign finance reform bombarded the Justice Department with requests for an independent counsel to take over the inquiry.
But the most important allegations have fallen away one by one:
Attorney General Janet Reno determined early that granting campaign contributors access to top officials, including the president, was no crime and that politicians were expected to pay attention to their supporters.
After the DNC returned about $2.8 million in donations considered suspect or illegal -- about 80 percent of the sum attributable to Huang or another fund-raiser with a close relationship to Clinton, Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie -- Republicans insisted that top Democratic officials had to have known what was going on. But in its first major indictment -- filed against Trie Jan. 29, 1998 -- and in every major indictment since then involving illegal contributions to the DNC, the Justice Department portrayed the Democratic Party as the victim of unscrupulous fund-raisers who disguised the origins of contributions.
Last year, the Justice Department concluded that the use of "issue ads" by Democratic Party groups to support the Clinton-Gore campaign did not constitute a scheme to circumvent campaign spending limits. The Federal Election Commission decided that no findings of wrongdoing could be supported because the law as it applied to such ads was murky and disputed.
A three-volume congressional report on Chinese espionage against the United States released last week barely mentions allegations that elements of the Chinese government or of government-owned industries attempted to influence the 1996 election with campaign contributions.
What remains of the Justice Department's $30 million investigation of 1996 presidential fund-raising are allegations that four former Democratic fund-raisers arranged contributions by "straw donors" -- individuals who made contributions in their own name but later were reimbursed with corporate or foreign funds that could not legally have been given to a political campaign.
Johnny Chung entered into a plea deal with the Justice Department in December and has been extensively debriefed, but has not implicated senior officials involved in 1996 fund-raising, according to legal sources.
Prosecutors will soon begin to interview Trie, who entered a plea deal with the Justice Department on May 21. However, when it came to political fund-raising, Trie dealt primarily with Huang. That avenue is likely a dead end given Huang's plea deal.
Similarly, two other fund-raisers awaiting trial on charges related to straw-donor schemes -- Maria Hsia and Pauline Kanchanalak -- would most likely lead investigators only to Huang if they choose to cooperate.
Although the Justice Department investigation appears to be winding down, there is another campaign finance investigation that could produce surprises.
Independent counsel Carol Elder Bruce has spent 14 months investigating allegations that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt made false statements about the handling of a gambling casino application by a Wisconsin Indian tribe that had given campaign contributions.
The secrecy of her effort and the length of time she has spent on what appears a fairly simple matter have prompted speculation within the Washington legal community that she is conducting a broader probe into the relationship between campaign contributions and political favors in the Clinton White House.
CAPTION: John Huang reportedly has not provided any damning evidence.