No independent counsel for Gore
White House welcomes the news; Rep. Burton calls it a 'sad day'
By Terry Frieden/CNN
WASHINGTON (November 24) -- Attorney General Janet Reno rejected the appointment of an independent counsel Tuesday to investigate allegations that Vice President Al Gore may have lied to FBI agents about his fund-raising activities during the 1996 campaign.
Reno's decision means Gore will not have to face the scrutiny of an outside prosecutor as he prepares a run for the presidency in 2000.
Reno announced the decision in a 20-page filing with the federal court which oversees the Independent Counsel process, within hours of the end of a 90-day preliminary Justice Department inquiry.
"I have determined that there are no reasonable grounds to believe that further investigation is warranted," Reno told the court.
Sources have told CNN that Reno's senior aides were divided over whether she should call for an outside counsel in the case.
In her letter to the court, Reno said her campaign finance task force had explored whether there was sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation into whether Gore violated laws when he told investigators last fall that he did not know at the time he made fund-raising calls from his White House office that the media campaign for which he was seeking funds was funded solely by unrestricted soft money.
Reno said the new documents discovered this year raised questions about the vice president's statements about his understanding of the mix of hard and soft money. One of the documents included Gore's handwritten notes.
But, Reno concluded, "The handwritten notes alone are not sufficient to warrant a conclusion that the vice president made a false statement."
The attorney general told the court the task force had determined that Gore attended a 1995 meeting at which the media fund was discussed as was the fact that some hard money was included in financing that campaign.
But Reno, after describing in detail the conflicting recollections of the meeting participants, said she concluded Gore did not lie.
"Taken altogether, I find the evidence fails to provide any reasonable support for a conclusion that the vice president may have lied," Reno said.
"I conclude that there is no reasonable prospect that these facts could support a successful prosecution," she said.
Gore's office issued a brief statement, saying, "The vice president is pleased that this preliminary review has been concluded without the need for an independent counsel."
President Bill Clinton supported Reno's decision as well.
"Obviously the president welcomes the news, as he has always believed that the vice president behaved completely properly during the campaign in 1996," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.
By contrast, the Republican chairman of the House committee investigating Democratic campaign finance practices blasted the attorney general's decision.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), who chairs the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, called the ruling "a sad day for the rule of law."
Burton charged that Reno "is committed to protecting the president and other members of his administration, and will not let the facts, the law, ore even the recommendations of her top investigators get in her way."
Reno, bracing for the expected GOP criticism and some editorial barbs, issued a separate statement along with her court filing. "As I have said before, I base my decisions solely on the facts and the law, not politics, pressure, or polls," she said.
Reno said she had referred matters to independent counsels on 10 separate occasions. She also said the task force investigating the Democratic fund-raising practices has now charged 14 people.
"Today's determination does not mean that our work has ended. We will continue to vigorously investigate all allegations of illegal activity," Reno declared.
Reno is not staying in Washington or even the country to answer her critics. Shortly after releasing her statement, Reno left for Brazil where she is scheduled to address the Inter-American Congress of Attorneys General Wednesday. She returns to Washington on Thanksgiving Day.
Reno's respite will be brief. When she returns to work on Monday she faces another deadline for deciding whether former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes should be the subject of an Independent Counsel investigation for his fund-raising practices. She then has one more week to decide whether an outside counsel should probe Clinton's fund-raising role.
CNN's Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.
Tuesday, November 24, 1998
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