Al Gore's Phone Calls: How Serious ? within 90 Days, Reno Must Decide on Special Prosecutor for Vice President. Today, Senate Probes Clinton's Calls

Article excerpt

In the early 1880s, Washington newspapers routinely carried classified ads that said something like this:

"WANTED - Government job. Will remit 10 percent of salary as campaign contribution to any politician who secures me a position."

The spread of such blatant kickbacks outraged one of the era's most eloquent US legislators, Sen. George H. Pendleton (D) of Ohio. His vehement denunciation of the practice eventually prodded Congress into passing the Pendleton Act, in 1883. This anticorruption bill removed many government jobs from patronage ranks, set up the modern US civil service - and outlawed the solicitation of campaign cash on federal property. Today, over a century after its passage, the Pendleton Act has suddenly been transformed from a dusty old statute to a vital point of interest. It's at the center of charges that Vice President Al Gore, and perhaps President Clinton, may have broken the law by making fund-raising calls from their White House offices. But even as the Justice Department ratchets up its phone call investigation, experts continue to debate the meaning of the Pendleton law in the modern world. Telecommunications has made "place" a fungible concept, for instance. In a fund-raising phone call, where does actual solicitation occur? And how serious is this dialing-for-dollars probe, anyway? Some experts claim it's picayune stuff - while the real outrage, the easy flow of millions of dollars of soft money into US politics, remains largely unregulated. "We should be focusing, not on where and when Gore made phone calls, but on the fact that he needed to make them at all," says Robert Mutch, a political scientist and author of a history of US campaign fund-raising. The legal evaluation of Mr. Gore's phone calls jumped to a new level last Friday when Attorney General Janet Reno opened a 90-day review of the vice president's conduct. By the end of the three-month period, Reno must decide whether the evidence is such that she must take the much more serious step of recommending the appointment of an independent counsel. On Friday the Justice Department announced the beginning of a separate, 30-day probe into the possibility that Mr. Clinton also broke the law via White House fund-raising calls. The case against Gore is much more fully developed, however. Gore has acknowledged making more than 40 fund-raising calls from the White House, while Clinton says he does not recall doing anything similar. Clinton's role in raising cash from the Oval Office is expected to be one of the primary topics of an appearance by former Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes before a Senate panel today. …