10/15/97 - 12:15 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Reno extends Clinton phone call probe

WASHINGTON - Attorney General Janet Reno extended her investigation Tuesday into President Clinton's fund-raising telephone calls, giving her task force until Dec. 2 to see if a special prosecutor is needed. "I didn't do anything wrong," Clinton responded.

Reno's decision came a day before the deadline for deciding whether to take the probe to the next stage - a preliminary investigation. She wanted it known before she was grilled Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee, Justice officials said.

The committee's Republicans are sure to press their demand for an independent counsel and to lambaste her handling of the case so far.

In a two-paragraph announcement, authorized by the special court that picks independent counsels, Reno said, "I have been unable to determine whether there is sufficient specific and credible evidence to suggest a violation of federal criminal law" by Clinton.

She said this was "because the initial inquiry period is limited to 30 days and because of the complexity of the factual and legal issues presented by this matter."

The task force needs more time to analyze evidence of whether Clinton may have violated a 114-year-old law barring solicitation of campaign contributions in federal office buildings, according to Justice officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Reno took the same step earlier this month in extending the investigation of Vice President Al Gore's campaign fund-raising calls from his office.

At a news conference in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, Clinton reacted calmly to questions about Reno's decision. "I did everything I could to comply with the law," he said. "There's a law. There's the fact-finding process, and I'm going to cooperate with it in every way I possibly can."

Republicans were less than satisfied by Reno's move. "The attorney general is taking a step in the right direction," said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, "but, so far, she has stopped short of taking the action which is decisive and necessary - requesting the court to appoint independent counsel."

Justice officials said Tuesday they expect to question Clinton himself about the campaign finance affair. The task force recently expressed interest in such an interview and has discussed possible formats with Clinton's representatives, according to department officials.

Clinton told reporters that an interview hasn't been discussed with him personally, but he pointed out his offer of a day earlier to do "anything that is necessary" to provide information, including an interview.

Gore's aides have said the vice president would be willing to talk with Justice officials. That questioning also is likely to be arranged.

Clinton took issue with Republican efforts to sway Reno. "The thing I don't feel good about is the overt, explicit, overbearing attempt to politicize this whole process and to put pressure on," Clinton said. "The law should be implemented without pressure either way. I am doing my part. I wish others were doing as well."

As in the Gore case, Justice officials cautioned that moving to a preliminary inquiry, even though it is one step closer to an independent counsel, does not make such an appointment inevitable.

Most of Clinton's calls apparently were made from the White House residence, which is not covered by the law, and he may have spoken from a script designed to elicit "soft money" contributions for general party advertising, which Reno has said also are not covered by the law, officials said.

The initial inquiry on Clinton, like the one on Gore, began after investigators learned last month that some of the contributions were later spent by Democratic party officials on more direct "hard money" efforts to re-elect the president.

Investigators need to determine whether Clinton and Gore were responsible for or even aware of that shift. The investigators have interviewed some contributors called by Clinton, it was learned.

In both inquiries, there also remains a question of whether the law, designed to prevent shakedowns of federal employees at work, applies to officials' calling private contributors at their own homes or offices.

Reno and congressional researchers have said the law has never been used to prosecute such calls. Indeed, the Pendleton Act was passed in 1883, just seven years after invention of the telephone and before its general use.

Some senators and President Reagan made similar fund-raising calls without being prosecuted. The independent counsel act requires Reno to follow Justice Department precedents in deciding what to investigate and prosecute.

Clinton's lawyer, David E. Kendall, said he was confident the inquiry would conclude "there are no grounds for the appointment of an independent counsel."

Both the Clinton and Gore preliminary inquiries, as well as one into whether a lobbyist was asked for a charitable contribution as a quid pro quo for seeing former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, can last until Dec. 2 - 90 days after these issues were raised in a letter by a majority of the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee.

With his aides poised to make public later this week more videotapes of his meetings with contributors at the White House and at fund-raising events elsewhere, Clinton said he was not concerned about what they would show. "It's the same old stuff," he said, adding that the tapes would probably be boring to anyone who had seen the White House coffees live. "I'm not worried about it."

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.