10/03/97 - 04:36 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Reno decides to expand Gore probe

WASHINGTON - Attorney General Janet Reno on Friday expanded the Justice Department's investigation of Vice President Al Gore's fund-raising telephone calls. Officials said the step does not guarantee that she ultimately will seek appointment of a special prosecutor.

In a two-paragraph notification, Reno said she decided to move from the current 30-day review to a preliminary investigation "because of the complexity of the factual and legal issues presented by this matter."

"I have been unable to determine whether there is sufficient specific and credible evidence to suggest a violation of federal criminal law," she added in a statement approved by the special court responsible for naming independent counsels.

Most preliminary investigations last up to 90 days, but the independent counsel law limits this one to 60 days because there was a request for it from Congress, officials said Friday.

At the end of the preliminary investigation, Reno would decide whether evidence warranted a full investigation, which would be conducted by an independent counsel chosen by the special court.

Ginny Terzano, a spokeswoman for Gore, said Thursday night that neither he nor his attorneys had been informed by the Justice Department of Reno's decision. Presidential spokesman Mike McCurry said Friday that, as far as he knew, the White House still has not been notified.

"We would not be surprised if this was extended to an additional 90-day review because we simply don't think there has been enough time to fully explore the matter," Terzano said.

A Justice Department task force investigating alleged campaign money illegalities in last year's election recommended that Reno move to the preliminary investigation.

Two government officials said earlier this week that the task force had told Reno it needed more time to gather facts about Gore's activities and to resolve legal questions about whether his calls were covered by an 1883 law that prohibits soliciting campaign contributions in federal office buildings.

Reno and her aides also drafted a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., who had requested that an independent counsel be named to look at Gore's telephone calls and President Clinton's White House coffees for supporters who later contributed large amounts to the 1996 re-election campaign.

It was learned that she would reject Hyde's request to move forward under the independent counsel law on Clinton's coffees. But the department already had acknowledged that it was conducting a 30-day review of Clinton's fund-raising telephone calls.

Reno has until Oct. 15 to decide whether to open a 90-day preliminary investigation into the Clinton calls.

Government lawyers stressed all week long that if Reno accepted the task force recommendation on Gore, as she has its previous recommendations, it would not foretell how she eventually would rule on whether a special prosecutor was needed.

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

Republicans also have attacked Reno for not seeking a special prosecutor before now. She has said she was under no pressure from the White House, either way.

Clinton said Thursday that Reno should make her decisions without pressure "from me or from anyone else."

The president has said he does not recall making fund-raising calls but that he might have. A key aide has told Senate investigators that Clinton made such calls in 1994 from the White House residence, which legal experts have said may not be covered by the 114-year-old statute.

The Associated Press reported in June that the president raised half a million dollars by telephone around the time of the 1994 elections.

Reno has said she was unaware of anyone ever being prosecuted under the law for making telephone solicitations of private citizens who were not on federal property.

The Congressional Research Service said the law was passed to prevent top federal officials from shaking down their subordinates at work for political contributions.

Democrats have said several senators and former President Reagan made fund-raising calls from federal buildings and were not prosecuted.

In 1995, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, spoke of making fund-raising calls for his presidential campaign, from his home, his car, his mobile phone - and said he could place calls from his Senate office. He was not prosecuted.

Reno has said investigators were reviewing past opinions on whether the statute applied to the president and vice president.

Earlier in the Clinton administration, the Justice Department conducted a 90-day preliminary investigation of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's alleged involvement in a deal in Vietnam and decided that no investigation was called for.

Later, an independent counsel was named to look into other dealings by Brown, but that probe ended when Brown died in a plane crash.

Earlier this year, Reno had declined to look at the White House telephone calls on grounds that they were for raising so-called soft money for issue and general party advertising rather than contributions to a specific candidates' campaigns.

However, the 30-day inquiries on Gore and Clinton were opened last month when it was discovered that Democratic National Committee officials had allocated some of the money raised by the calls to hard money accounts supporting candidate advertising.

By The Associated Press

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