WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- In a decision with huge implications for the Clinton presidency, Attorney General Janet Reno spent her Sunday reviewing whether to seek a special prosecutor into the 1996 political fund-raising activities of President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
Most signs indicated that Reno, who has until tomorrow to make up her mind, will decline to call for an independent counsel. And while Justice Department officials insisted that Reno would simply follow the law wherever it leads, Democrats and Republicans believe that her decision may have enormous political ramifications.
White House officials and their Democratic allies on Capitol Hill expressed hope that a favorable decision by Reno might finally shift the focus away from the re-election tactics of 1996 -- and onto the policy agenda of Clinton's second term.
"We need this behind us," one top White House official said recently. "We have a lot we're trying to do, and we need Congress focused on 1998 -- not on 1996."
Republican congressional leaders insist that an independent counsel is the only way for Clinton to be held accountable for a re-election victory that they maintain was tainted by a systematic infusion of illegal campaign contributions.
"There are enough facts to lead anyone to the conclusion that crimes may have been committed," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, said yesterday. "I think the American people would be outraged by [a refusal to call for a special prosecutor]. I know members of Congress would be."
Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, added that Republicans in Congress are poised to increase their pressure on Reno if they don't get an independent investigation. Some signaled they'll turn up the heat on FBI Director Louis J. Freeh as well.
"[Reno] knows that a real investigation would put Clinton and Gore in a world of hurt, so the stonewalling will continue," Rep. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican, said last week.
"The free ride for Freeh is about to end," Salmon added. "If he signs off on this charade, his reputation will plummet -- just as the attorney general's has."
Earlier this year Freeh said the 1996 campaign finance controversy belongs in the hands of an independent counsel, an opinion that took on added weight after Reno promised House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, that she would not make a final decision without factoring in Freeh's views.
Exactly what this means is a matter of dispute. The Justice Department task force investigating campaign financing reportedly has recommended to Reno that she not seek an independent counsel. Will Freeh go along? And how much of a veto is Reno giving him? These questions were vigorously debated on the various network talk shows yesterday.
"We've had the inquiry, she's got a professional recommendation, and it appears that that is going to lead to not naming an independent counsel," Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, countered on ABC's This Week. "I think what Janet Reno said is that she would not close off any area of inquiry without Mr. Freeh agreeing. She did not say she was going to cede her judgment about an independent counsel to Louis Freeh."
Justice Department spokesman Bert Brandenburg said yesterday that Reno and Freeh met last week, adding that "the FBI has had every opportunity to make its views known."
Although she has remained cool in public, Reno has clearly been under tremendous stress. Friends say that the attorney general, who suffers from the early stage of Parkinson's disease, routinely works 70-hour weeks and rarely takes more than one day at a time off. Last week, while in Mexico City for an international judicial conference before heading to Florida to spend Thanksgiving with her family, Reno fainted and had to be hospitalized. Doctors said the problem stemmed from gallstones and fatigue, and she was released the next day.
Yesterday, Reno met with top aides and leaders of her campaign finance task force. She declined to comment when asked later if she had made a decision. Aides indicated that she asked questions but didn't reveal any decision.
While most GOP leaders have been reluctant to personalize their criticism of Reno, she alienated Republicans by centering her inquiry around a single question: the legality of telephone solicitation calls Clinton and Gore made from the White House.
"I have a lot of sympathy for Attorney General Reno," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican. "But the focus just on the telephone calls is much too narrow."
Democrats respond that Reno is resisting political pressure -- and carefully following the law.
"The independent counsel statute is not a general investigatory mandate, it's a specific, criminally triggered statute," said Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat. "It says if you have evidence that a crime may have been committed, you appoint an independent counsel."
Reports of excesses on the part of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee began surfacing last year even before the election took place. This year, scarcely a week has gone by without some embarrassing disclosure.
These have included overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom for wealthy contributors; White House "coffees" for donors expected to give $50,000; a Gore fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple; millions of dollars in donations that the Democratic Party admits appear as though they came from Asian citizens or companies; videotapes in which the president boasts about using large "soft-money" donations for television ads designed to aide the Clinton-Gore campaign. Such large donations are supposed to be used for "party-building" activities, not political campaigning.
In hearings conducted on Capitol Hill this year, however, Democrats were successful in showing that the Republican National Committee used soft money to help Bob Dole's presidential campaign, too.
"That's why some Republican leaders aren't really pushing all that hard for a special prosecutor -- even though they sound like they are," said Larry Klayman, head of Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group pushing for an independent counsel. "Many of them aren't sure they really want one, either."
Pub Date: 12/01/97