Ex-U.S. Prosecutor to Head Campaign Finance Probe

A North Carolina federal prosecutor was named yesterday to head the Justice Department's campaign finance task force.

Robert Conrad, who has been criminal chief of the U.S. Attorney's office in Charlotte, succeeds David Vicinanzo, who returned to New Hampshire to be with his family. Vicinanzo remains a consultant to the task force, set up after the 1996 elections to investigate allegations of campaign finance abuses.

Twenty-two people have been charged in the continuing investigation, the Justice Department says.

The inquiry came under fire in September when FBI agents told a Senate committee that Justice Department prosecutors impeded their work in the investigation of Democratic donor Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie.

Trie eventually pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, as did Johnny Chung and John Huang, two other key figures in the fund-raising controversy.

Record Gun-Checks Volume

The number of background checks for prospective gun buyers topped 1 million nationwide this month, including a new high of 67,000 checks in one day on Dec. 23, FBI officials said.

Reluctant to attribute the increase to Y2K terrorism fears, officials said the booming economy and the Christmas gift-giving season could have fueled the spike.

The 1,045,799 background checks performed by state and federal officials from Dec. 1-26 compares with 871,644 checks during all of December 1998.

Federal officials conducted 162,595 background checks during the third week of December this year, compared with 129,558 during the same week a year ago, said Daniel Wells, acting operations manager for the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check system based in Clarksburg, W.Va. That increase could be attributed to Y2K scares or the fact that more people have money to spend, he said.

Wells cautioned that December 1998 might not have been a normal month because it was the first month of the nationwide background check system. He said officials would like to see three or four years of figures for comparison purposes.

The background-check system, operated by the FBI and state governments, is required by the federal Brady law and replaces the voluntary checks on handgun buyers conducted by state and local police and sheriffs that have been in place since 1993.

Aquarium Beluga Whale Dies

CHICAGO--A beluga whale that recently gave birth to its first calf at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium has died of unknown causes, the fifth beluga to die at the aquarium since 1992, officials said.

An autopsy performed Sunday on Immiayuk, 14, was inconclusive but her caretakers hope to learn the cause of death within a few weeks from laboratory tests.

Immiayuk's female calf, born this summer, was still nursing, and caretakers hope to switch her to a fish diet.

Two male calves born at Shedd's Oceanarium failed to nurse adequately and died, one in August and another last year. Two adult belugas died in 1992 from a reaction to an anti-worming medication.