WASHINGTON -- Closing the door on an inquiry that threatened to embroil President Clinton in another controversy, Attorney General Janet Reno declined yesterday to recommend the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Clinton's campaign fund-raising activities in the 1996 election.
After a preliminary 90-day review, Reno said she found "clear and convincing evidence" that the president did not knowingly break federal election laws or show "criminal intent" in his involvement with issue advertisements financed by the Democratic Party.
Reno examined whether Clinton violated federal spending limits by improperly coordinating "issue ads" with the Democratic Party that were thinly veiled messages for the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign rather than the strict party-building ads the law requires.
Her decision was consistent with a two-year pattern of refusing to turn over pieces of the Justice Department's campaign fund-raising probe to an independent counsel. But it drew immediate attacks from Republican critics who accuse her of protecting the president.
"The attorney general has a conflict of interest, obvious to everyone but herself and her small, anonymous cadre of Justice Department advisers," said Sen. Fred Thompson, the Tennessee Republican who chaired campaign fund-raising hearings in the Senate last year. "And she has proven once again that under her administration, the independent counsel law is designed only for the little guys."
Reno, saying she found "no reasonable grounds for further criminal investigation," based her decision on the fact that Clinton was advised by legal counsel that the TV ads complied with federal election laws. She noted, too, that lawyers screened the ads before they were broadcast to make sure they were legally sound.
Under established law, the attorney general noted, "good faith reliance" on the advice of lawyers negates criminal intent.
But Reno did not make a determination of whether the issue ads complied with election laws. She said she would defer to the Federal Election Commission for the interpretation of "ambiguous election laws" that, she noted, have been described even by FEC commissioners themselves as "fuzzy" and "hardly clear."
The FEC is still considering, at meetings this week, whether the ads amounted to a civil violation of election law.
Reno noted that yesterday's decision ended only one piece of the Justice Department's investigation into allegations of illegal activities in the 1996 election. The probe, so far, has resulted in charges against 14 people.
But the case she closed yesterday had been the most threatening to the administration because it named Clinton as the subject and went to the crux of the Democrats' campaign fund-raising operation.
In the midst of impeachment proceedings against Clinton, Reno's decision was welcomed at the White House.
"As we have said all along, the president and the Clinton-Gore campaign complied with the spirit and the letter of the law," said Amy Weiss, deputy White House press secretary. "We are gratified by this decision."
Over the past two years, Reno has repeatedly refused to turn over the Justice Department's campaign fund-raising inquiry to an independent counsel, even though FBI Director Louis J. Freeh had recommended she do so to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.
In the last two weeks, Reno has decided not to recommend the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Vice President Al Gore's campaign fund-raising activities, and has postponed for 60 days a decision on whether a special prosecutor should explore whether former White House aide Harold Ickes lied to Congress about the administration's efforts on behalf of the Teamsters union.
Reno initiated the review of Clinton's activities in August based on FEC audits that concluded that both Clinton and the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, Bob Dole, committed civil violations of federal spending limits.
Pub Date: 12/08/98