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Memo Raises New Questions About Gore's Fund-Raising

Reno still ponders seeking an independent counsel for campaign finance probe

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Aug. 20) -- Justice Department officials are examining a recently discovered White House memo that raises new questions about how deeply Vice President Al Gore was involved in questionable fund-raising practices, sources tell CNN.

The July 1995 memo was turned over to the Justice Department only last month. The document suggests, though it does not prove, that Gore may have known money he was soliciting in phone calls from the White House would be diverted to the Clinton-Gore campaign, sources said. Gore has denied such knowledge.

But sources described the memo as inconclusive and unlikely to lead to the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the vice president's fund-raising. One law enforcement official said "no one is too excited" about the new memo at the Justice Department or the FBI.

But sources say more time may be needed to examine the memo and the circumstances around it to clear up Gore's role.

The memo could be significant in determining whether there was a systematic effort to divert unregulated "soft money," used for general party building, to the Clinton-Gore campaign.

The New York Times, which first disclosed the existence of the memo in a report Thursday, said notations handwritten by an unidentified senior aide to Gore describe a meeting on Nov. 21, 1995, in which Gore and senior campaign officials discussed diverting large donations being raised by Gore from "soft money" accounts to "hard money" accounts.

Janet Reno
Janet Reno  

That could be significant. Attorney General Janet Reno refused last December to seek an independent counsel to investigate whether phone calls Gore made from the White House might have violated a century-old law prohibiting solicitation of election funds in any federal workplace.

Reno ruled that the law applied only to "hard money," contributions, used directly to support federal election campaigns. Some of the money Gore raised was later diverted, but Gore aides said it was without his knowledge.

However, law enforcement officials said that even if Gore knew some of the money he was raising was covered by the law, an independent counsel remains unlikely. Nobody has ever been prosecuted under the law in question, which Gore has argued was passed only to prevent shakedowns of federal employees.

Justice Department policy is not to seek an independent counsel to investigate government officials for violations that the department itself would not prosecute if committed by ordinary citizens.

Reno still considering independent counsel

The discovery of the White House memo comes as Reno is said to be considering calling for an independent counsel to investigate campaign fund-raising.

In her weekly press briefing Thursday, Reno refused to comment on the Times report, saying it was an ongoing investigation.

Reno also refused to disclose whether she has made a decision on appointing an independent counsel, a step Republicans in particular have been pressuring her to take for months. But she did say she has not yet asked a court to appoint one.

CNN has learned that Justice Department officials will decide within weeks whether to launch two separate 90-day investigate probes, the first steps toward the appointment of an independent counsel to deal with campaign finance issues.

In addition to the fresh look at Gore's activities, there is also a focus by investigators on former deputy White House chief of staff Harold Ickes, a key political operative during the campaign.

Both Gore and Ickes have denied any wrongdoing.

Asked directly if she had asked for an independent counsel, Reno said, "I have not asked the court to appoint an independent counsel. At this point I'm continuing to review the matter."

Attorney General to brief congressional leaders

Reno said she hoped to brief Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) on her deliberations and about two memos that reportedly urge her to appoint an independent counsel.

Hatch and Hyde, who chair the Senate and House Judiciary committees respectively, have asked Reno to brief them on memos sent to her by FBI Director Louis Freeh and Charles LaBella, former head of the Justice Department campaign finance task force.

Another congressional committee chaired by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) has cited Reno for contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over the memos. Reno has refused, saying to do so would harm pending investigations.

The attorney general again vowed Thursday not to let political pressure influence her decision in the campaign finance case.

"If people want to call me names, call me chicken, call me wimpy, they can do that," Reno said.

"But I'm trying to make the best decision I can and I'm going to continue to try and do that. And one thing is for sure: I get fussed at one way and I get cussed at another way and I'm never going be Miss Popularity in this business. But I will hope with all my heart that I will leave this job knowing that I tried to do the right thing and feeling in my heart that I did," she said.

CNN's Brooks Jackson and Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.

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