Justice Looking Anew at Probe of Gore: Decision on Need to Seek Counsel Still `Long Way Off'
Seper, Jerry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
The Justice Department said yesterday it is considering opening a preliminary investigation to determine whether an independent counsel should be appointed to probe suspected illegal campaign solicitations by Vice President Al Gore.
With a Senate committee expected to focus on Mr. Gore's fund-raising activities, including 46 telephone calls he made from the White House during the 1996 election, the department said it was "reviewing whether allegations that the vice president illegally solicited campaign contributions on federal property should warrant a preliminary investigation under the Independent Counsel Act."
If ordered, a 30-day preliminary probe would determine if there is credible evidence, as required under the act. That could lead to a formal, 90-day criminal investigation and a recommendation by Attorney General Janet Reno that an outside prosecutor is warranted.
Miss Reno, under increasing pressure from Republicans in the Senate and House to appoint an outside prosecutor, had steadfastly refused to ask a federal appeals court panel to name an independent counsel in the case. The department's decision to re-examine its position is in stark contrast to that decision.
Justice Department spokesman Bert Brandenburg declined to elaborate on the decision to review the accusations against Mr. Gore but warned reporters that the department was "still a long way off" from seeking the appointment of an independent counsel in the case. Any decision to seek outside counsel would come after the 30-day and 90-day inquiries.
The Justice Department decision to look into the accusations follows a letter yesterday to Miss Reno from the House Judiciary Committee, which argued that evidence was mounting against Mr. Gore and had reached the level requiring the appointment of an independent counsel.
"The American people must know whether their political institutions serve their interests, and they must have complete confidence in the investigation that answers that question," said the 25-page letter, signed by committee Republicans. "As your 1993 testimony on the re-authorization of the independent counsel statute indicates, you can only ensure that confidence by seeking an independent counsel."
The letter said there were "sufficient grounds" to investigate accusations of campaign-finance abuses by President Clinton, Mr. Gore and former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary.
Mr. Gore, in a statement released by his office, said he had "cooperated fully" with the Justice Department, "and of course we will continue to do so. We remain confident that no law or regulation was violated."
Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and a member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which resumes hearings into campaign-finance abuses today, said he believed the Justice Department decision means an independent counsel will be appointed.
"It's pretty clear where it's going. I don't think Justice would start this without being pretty certain where they're going," Mr. …