WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno, in a move that caught the White House by surprise, has launched a preliminary inquiry into whether she should request a special prosecutor to probe President Clinton's 1996 campaign fund-raising activities, White House officials disclosed late yesterday afternoon.
"We are cooperating and will continue to cooperate with the Department of Justice to ensure it has all the information it needs," said special White House counsel Lanny J. Davis. "We are confident no laws were broken."
This initial review, to last no more than 30 days, is done to determine whether a more comprehensive, 90-day investigation is warranted. The second phase could lead to Reno's requesting a special prosecutor.
White House officials and Clinton's lawyers have worked hard to avoid the appointment of a special prosecutor. Already the actions of the president, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top White House officials are being probed by special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr, who is investigating Whitewater real estate deals dating to when Clinton was governor of Arkansas.
If another inquiry were launched, it would be into Clinton's role while president, this one in assisting the Democratic Party to raise some $150 million from big donors, corporations and labor unions from 1993 through 1996.
Last night, a Justice Department official indicated that the preliminary inquiry into the president's actions centers on calls he may have made from the White House to solicit such contributions.
"The Justice Department is reviewing whether allegations that the president illegally solicited campaign contributions on federal property should warrant a preliminary inquiry under the independent counsel act," Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin said.
Questions have swirled all year about whether Clinton made calls. In public he has not denied doing so -- he says he can't remember -- but documents turned over to a Senate committee investigating campaign financing suggest that such calls may have been made.
Harold Ickes, former White House deputy chief of staff, told Senate investigators in June that he had asked Clinton to make a number of fund-raising calls -- and that he subsequently learned that Clinton had made them.
Such solicitations are commonplace in politics -- some of the president's harshest Republican critics have admitted they've done the same thing -- and David Kendall, Clinton's private attorney, asserted last night that it would be a stretch to base an independent counsel probe on such calls.
"No laws were broken," Kendall said. "And any kind of enforcement action would be absolutely unprecedented."
The Justice Department is already investigating whether an independent counsel is warranted to investigate Vice President Al Gore over his role in raising campaign money last year. Gore, who has also maintained that he knowingly violated no law, has )) retained two private lawyers to help him ward off a special prosecutor.
The news that the president was in the same boat broke over what was supposed to be a quiet weekend at the White House. The president and first lady, accompanied by only a skeletal staff, were in Northern California taking Chelsea Clinton to college at Stanford University. White House counsel Charles Ruff was informed Friday of Reno's action; Clinton was told yesterday morning as he prepared to go running.
At the White House, there was obvious concern about this latest development. Asked how big a problem he thought this would be, one aide said pensively, "I don't know. I truly don't know."
Despite calls for action from Republican leaders and an array of influential nonpartisan groups that monitor the political system -- and even some Democrats -- Reno had resisted seeking an independent counsel investigation.
Reno had insisted that because the evidence did not directly implicate Clinton or Gore in the abuses that have come to light, the Professional Integrity section of the Justice Department was the appropriate investigative body.
In recent weeks, a steady flow of revelations has eroded this explanation, however, and Reno has been harshly criticized by Republicans, some of whom have threatened to initiate impeachment proceedings against her in the House if she didn't turn over the investigation to an independent counsel.
But there are signs that Reno herself has been displeased by recent disclosures unearthed in media accounts and in the continuing Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearings chaired by Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican. Last week Reno replaced the lead prosecutor on the Justice Department task force investigating campaign finance abuses with a career prosecutor from San Diego, Charles LaBella.
Those recent developments in the fund-raising controversy include:
The manner in which large contributions were used.
Both the Republican and Democratic national parties skirt limits on how much individuals can contribute by funneling large "soft-money" donations of as much $100,000 into separate party accounts. These are supposed to be used for party-building activities, but it turned out that in 1996 the Democrats often siphoned the first $20,000 and routed it to regular "hard-money" accounts that are covered by strict limits.
This information directly undercut Reno's contention that she did not need to seek a special prosecutor for Gore because soft-money wasn't covered under relevant election laws.
The appearance that White House access was tied directly to contributions.
Some wealthy donors solicited for huge contributions are coming forward and saying -- at least one under oath -- that they were encouraged by Democratic Party officials to believe their ability to meet the president was dependent on how much they contributed.
One such donor, Johnny Chung, gave $366,000 to the Democrats during the 1994-1996 cycle and was granted 49 visits to the White House. "I see the White House is like a subway," he said this summer. "You have to put in coins to open the gates."
Another, Roger Tamraz, told Thompson's committee Thursday of giving $300,000 to the Democrats and getting a controversial meeting with the president to pitch a pipeline project -- but not getting a U.S -government endorsement for the project itself. Asked by a Democratic senator if he thought he'd got his money's worth, Tamraz shot back, "Next time, I'll give $600,000."
The possibility that U.S. intelligence agencies were compromised by the Democrats' aggressive fund-raising efforts.
Last week, a former White House national security aide testified that former DNC chief Don Fowler did an end run around her to get Tamraz into the White House.
The possibility that solicitation of big givers emanated from the Oval Office or the vice president's office.
Federal law appears to prohibit fund-raising on federal property. But last spring when Gore revealed he had made such phone calls, lawyers on the vice president's staff insisted that the law might not cover telephone solicitations -- the law traces back to one written before the invention of the telephone -- and in any event did not apply to the president or the vice president.
There is no legal authority establishing whether this contention is true or not for the simple reason that there has never been a prosecution of a federal elected official under the statute.
Reno has until the first week of October to complete an initial 30-day review about the possibility of conducting a formal investigation into Gore's fund-raising activities. Presuming that the initial inquiry into the president's actions started late this week, she will have until mid-October to complete the first phase of the inquiry.
Pub Date: 9/21/97