Washington Bulletin

Washington Bulletin

Prince Albert or Prince Of Thieves?
Did Al Gore break the law with those White House fundraising calls? Janet Reno has just shaken up the task force investigating Gore, and the Thompson Committee has recently been focusing on Gore in a play for an independent counsel. Whether one is actually appointed could depend on the interpretation of an arcane part of the federal code, Title 18, Section 607. Reno originally said that the law didn't prohibit the solicitation of soft money, since it is not technically a campaign contribution. In this, she is backed up by a Congressional Research Service report on the law. But this became less meaningful when the Washington Post reported that some of Gore fundraising proceeds went to hard-money accounts.

Gore defenders have countered with a couple of arguments:

1. That the law was meant to keep federal officeholders from dunning federal employees. This seems to have been the original intent of the law, but by 1980 Congress was interpreting it to prohibit fundraising even of private citizens from federal property. The Department of Justice has agreed with this new interpretation, holding that "solicitations of private citizens fall within the scope" of the prohibition. So here Gore defenders aren't on very solid ground.

2. That the Justice Department has never prosecuted anyone for soliciting private citizens from federal property and the independent counsel law was amended in 1982 to say that a counsel doesn't have to be appointed in cases where someone wouldn't be prosecuted. This seems to be technically correct, but falls into the category of a speeding motorist's lame defense: everyone else was speeding and didn't get caught. As a political matter, it would probably be impossible for Reno to make this argument, i.e., Gore broke the law but should get away with because others have in the past.

In any case, there are plenty of other reasons for an independent counsel, from the numerous alleged instances of trading favors for contributions to Reno's obvious conflict of interest in the case. For an excellent run-down for the overall case for an independent counsel, check out the letter Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde sent to Reno a couple of weeks ago. Eventually, it seems, Reno will have to give in and ask for an independent counsel—something at which she should be quite expert by now.

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Updated By:
Rich Lowry - National Political Reporter
Ramesh Ponnuru - National Reporter

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