10/02/97 - 08:06 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Gore gets free legal help

WASHINGTON - Vice President Al Gore fended off a fresh Republican attack Thursday for taking free legal help from a high-profile lawyer, one day before Attorney General Janet Reno was to decide whether to move a step closer to seeking a special prosecutor for White House fund raising.

President Clinton said Reno should make her decision without pressure "from me or from anyone else."

The White House has accused Republicans of trying to force Reno's hand by threatening her with impeachment if she does not move against Clinton and Gore.

Reno is determining whether to open 90-day preliminary investigation to study the possibility of requesting a special prosecutor against Clinton and Gore. She must decide by Friday in the Gore case; her deadline for Clinton is Oct. 15.

Expecting Reno to take the next step toward a special prosecutor, Gore has hired two defense attorneys. One of them, James Neal, a Nashville, Tenn., lawyer who is also a former Watergate prosecutor, said Thursday that he would not charge legal fees - a move that drew instant criticism from the GOP.

Neal and George Frampton of Washington were hired by Gore last month in an effort to convince Reno that a special prosecutor was not needed. Neal was in Washington for the case Thursday.

He will not bill Gore for his services, though the vice president will be charged for Neal's expenses and for any time the law firm's associates spend on the case. The Office of Government Ethics determined that "pro bono" legal work is a contribution that is excluded from federal gift bans.

But the arrangement could open Gore to criticism that Neal might expect favors from the vice president or his staff in the future.

"So-called pro bono or free legal services are supposed to be for the poor and the needy, not the vice president of the United States," said Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson.

"Mr. Gore owes the American people an immediate explanation of this unusual fee arrangement: at the very least, it is a questionable exercise of the vice president's judgment," the Republican said in a statement.

Vincent Falamony, an attorney with the ethics office, said the president and vice president are allowed to accept gifts - such as free legal work - if they don't solicit the gifts and don't do any favors in return. Another exception is when the gift is motivated by a longtime friendship.

Gore's office referred questions to Neal, who released a brief statement.

"The idea to volunteer my time to represent the vice president during this period was mine, based on my high regard for the vice president and my longtime friendship with his entire family," he said.

An assistant to Frampton, Susan Kaslow, said the co-counsel will bill Gore "at a commercial rate."

Falamony confirmed that an attorney in Gore's office sought and received clearance to accept the free legal work.

Clinton determined that he could not accept free legal work in the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones because the allegation did not relate to his duties as president. He set up a legal defense fund.

In a brief exchange with reporters Thursday, the president defended his party's fund-raising practices.

"It is my understanding that everything the Democratic National Committee did had the prior approval of the lawyers," he said after a Rose Garden ceremony announcing new food safety regulations.

"If you read the statute, she can consider certain things in the 90-day period that are not permitted in the 30-day period," Clinton told reporters. "But I think this is a legal question and it should be done based on an independent legal review with no pressure from the outside, from me or anyone else."

By The Associated Press

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