Why Campaign-Finance Probe May Not Harm Clinton BEEN THERE, DONE THAT

Article excerpt

President Clinton is likely to dodge another bullet. Make that three.

With the House Judiciary Committee, Federal Elections Commission, and Justice Department investigating presidential abuses of campaign-finance laws, this triple threat may seem hard to survive. But campaign-finance experts say that, because of the vagaries of campaign-finance law and exhaustiveness of previous investigations, Mr. Clinton is likely to withstand this latest challenge.

"If the president is in trouble, it won't be over campaign financing," says Jan Baran, general counsel for the 1988 Bush- Quayle campaign. Although the accusations cover a lot of ground, they revolve around two themes: Campaign advertising. Attorney General Janet Reno must decide by Monday whether to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Clinton for violating spending limits related to his 1996 political advertising. But even if she does appoint an outside investigator, prosecuting Clinton would be next to impossible. The election law is so complex and vague, say campaign-finance experts, that violators are hard to prosecute. "It's not a prosecutable offense," says Kenneth Gross, former chief of enforcement for the FEC, who advises Republicans and Democrats on campaign law. Meanwhile, Ms. Reno could be influenced by the Federal Elections Commission, whose commissioners met yesterday to review an FEC audit. The audit recommended that the 1996 campaigns of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole repay the federal government millions of dollars because of advertising spending violations. But for political and legal reasons, the commissioners were likely to back off from the audit recommendations, say former and present commissioners. Reno had subpoenaed an early draft of the audit to help decide the independent counsel question. If commissioners downplay the audit, it could ease pressure off Reno to appoint a special prosecutor. Foreign contributions. The issue is whether 1996 contributions from Indonesian and Chinese donors to the Democratic National Committee were illegal, if they resulted in federal policies favorable to the foreign donors, and how much the president was involved in the donations. "The only issues that seem to have potential saliency are the foreign contributions, and that's become extremely murky," says Mr. Baran, citing a US district judge's ruling this fall. According to the ruling, foreign donations of "soft money" - donations to political parties as opposed to specific campaigns - aren't illegal, though the Justice Department is appealing. …