Last week, Attorney General Janet Reno kept President Clinton under the spotlight by extending the timetable of her investigation into 1996 campaign fund raising. The next day, however, Reno faced a hostile Republican-led House Judiciary Committee, which accused her of dragging her feet on the investigation.
The nation's first female attorney general is marching alone, risking the wrath of Congress, the White House and both major political parties. For her part, Reno sounds unfazed even by the suggestions of some of her critics that she should resign. She seemed almost wistful in telling Congress that if she decided to leave soon, her hometown of Miami always beckons - an option, she noted wryly, that's more attractive than ever now that the Florida Marlins are in the World Series.
Her legacy may hinge on the events of the next six weeks: Reno is weighing the necessity of asking for a special prosecutor to investigate her boss.
Here are some of the questions raised by Reno's actions so far: The answers are supplied by Carl M. Cannon, The Sun's White House correspondent.
I've heard that a Justice Department "task force" is investigating campaign fund raising. Who's investigating whom?
A total of 120 Justice Department employees are working on it full time, including career prosecutors, FBI agents, department investigators and support staff. They are looking into abuses by both Democrats and Republicans. The deadline to ask for a special prosecutor to investigate whether fund-raising phone calls from the White House violated a law against raising political money on federal property is Dec. 2. But a broader investigation into everything from White House coffees to foreign donations faces no time limit and shows no signs of wrapping up any time soon.
Why did Reno need an extra 60 days to look into the fund-raising activities of Clinton and Vice President Al Gore? Is that a sign that she's onto something?
Perhaps not. Reno has indicated that she simply needs time to review and interpret the little-used federal law against solicitation of campaign money on federal property to determine whether it applies to the president or vice president. Legal experts differ on the statute's intent.
Gore, also the subject of a preliminary Justice Department inquiry, has acknowledged making direct solicitations in nearly 50 phone calls from his government office. But it is not clear whether Clinton also made such phone calls. His staff asked him to make calls; Clinton says he cannot recall if he followed through. One top White House aide said he was present when Clinton called supporters but isn't sure whether Clinton made a direct appeal for money. Reno's task force is plumbing the memories of those he may have called to find out what Clinton may have said.
Is that all Reno is looking at? What about the evidence of laundered donations and foreign contributions from people who
presumably wanted to influence U.S. policy or who saw a fat donation to the Democratic Party as their ticket into the inner councils of the administration?
This is what Republicans keep asking Reno. Her response has been maddening to them but consistent: So far, she says, she has seen no "specific" or "credible" evidence that Clinton ever knowingly accepted a contribution he had reason to believe came from an illegal source or that he accepted a donation in return for a favor. Reno has repeatedly assured Congress, however, that she will examine any new evidence uncovered by her task force.
Does the release of White House videotapes of Clinton fund-raisers shed any new light on this?
The Republicans think so. They point to several segments among the 100 hours of tapes, including a February 1996 dinner for Asian-American donors that raised $1.1 million. At this dinner, Clinton thanked the crowd for their contributions, and added: "If you know some deserving person you'd like to see a part of this administration, let us know."
Clinton is also seen meeting repeatedly with John Huang, a key fund-raiser. Much of the money raised by Huang has been returned because of questions about its origins. Investigators suspect that some of that money was funneled into Democratic coffers by James Riady, an Indonesian billionaire who also appears on the videotapes, talking earnestly with the president, at least once inside the Oval Office.
But does that mean Clinton broke any laws?
No, and Republicans leaders haven't yet made that claim. What Republicans do say is that there is ample evidence of questionable activity to warrant a special prosecutor and that Reno faces at least the appearance of a conflict of interest in investigating the president who appointed her.
The House Judiciary Committee, while grilling Reno last week, played a videotape in which the president praises Huang for his fund-raising efforts and adds, "You really came through for us."
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. asked Reno if this amounted to "new and credible evidence that the president at least had knowledge of Huang's activities."
The attorney general replied that Clinton's remark did not constitute authorization to raise political money from illegal foreign sources. "To suggest that is to engage in the rumor and innuendo that we try to avoid in the Department of Justice," she said.
The meetings with Huang and Riady appear unseemly, but they hardly constitute a smoking gun. Is there anything else?
Yes. At a May 1996 White House luncheon for a broader range of supporters, Clinton thanked those on hand for having contributed "generously" to the Democratic Party. He also noted that their donations had financed a TV advertising campaign that he said was vital to his re-election prospects.
The ads Clinton referred to were paid for by the Democratic National Committee with unregulated "soft money" contributions. Such donations can be limitless, compared with the $1,000 maximum that an individual can give directly to a candidate. But the law bars the use of soft money to expressly urge the election of one candidate over another.
The television ads Clinton referred to specifically promoted the president's record in office while criticizing House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee. To Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and a former prosecutor, Clinton's videotaped comment "locks up the contention" that the ads were illegal.
"The law is plain that there cannot be coordination" between the candidate and the party, Specter said.
"The quote of the president on the tape really nails it."
Don't both parties bend the law regarding soft money?
The simplest answer is "Yes, but . . ." Republicans maintain - and there is some evidence in White House materials given to investigators - that the 1996 Clinton campaign exploited the loophole on soft money on a scale unmatched by any of its predecessors, Republican or Democratic.
Haven't big donors always expected something in return for their largess?
Sure. This reality was pointedly raised by one Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Barney Frank, who chided his Republican colleagues about seeming shocked - shocked - that big-time donors expected favors from politicians.
"I cannot think of hypocrisy more blatant," Frank said, "than for members of this body to suggest that someone should be criminally prosecuted because they give preferential access to campaign contributors."
Pub Date: 10/21/97