10/14/97 - 11:16 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

A closer look at the Pendleton Act

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department's investigation of President Clinton's phone calls to donors centers on a 114-year-old law that was written before most people even had telephones.

It's called the Pendleton Act, and today's lawyers, including Justice Department task force members investigating Clinton, can't agree on how or whether it applies to fund-raising practices of today.

The law forbids soliciting or receiving contributions on federal property. Members of Attorney General Janet Reno's 120-member task force have been wrestling with whether that covers the unique office of the presidency.

Congress passed the law in 1883 to protect federal workers from being strong-armed by political bosses, who routinely demanded kickbacks for federal jobs in those days.

"The spirit of the law was to prevent Bill Clinton from walking down the hall into my office and shaking me down for $1,000," White House spokesman Mike McCurry says.

No one is saying Clinton or Vice President Gore, who also is being investigated for phoning donors, asked aides or federal employees for campaign contributions.

Before Reno decided on Tuesday to extend the investigation of Clinton, task force members had been leaning toward recommending that she end the review. Some argued that because many of the calls he made were from his private residence in the White House, they were not covered by the law.

Another complication: The Justice Department has never used the law to prosecute members of Congress, some of whom say they have called donors from their offices.

For that reason, Jack Maskell, a lawyer who wrote a report on the law for Congress, said "it is not clear" if the law could legally be used to go after Clinton and Gore, since the Justice Department in effect has a policy of not using it.

In the end, task force members decided that the issue is so complex that they could not advise closing down the probe of Clinton's calls. Reno said she would extend it until Dec. 2.

At that time, she can either end the investigation or seek the appointment of an independent counsel to take it over.

Before then, she faces more complicated questions:

Does it matter that the donors Clinton called are private citizens who were, presumably, in their homes or offices when the phone rang?

Clinton's lawyers say the law forbids only calls to people on federal property, not calls from people on federal property.

Does it matter where Clinton was when he made calls?

Some say a president should be able to make such calls from the White House as long as he goes upstairs to his residence. Others say no calls to donors should be made from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue at all.

Does the Pendleton Act apply only to a specific category of contributions?

The act forbids soliciting donations for a specific candidate's federal election campaign, funds known as "hard money" in today's campaign-finance jargon.

It doesn't address "soft money," the modern-day, unlimited sums that are supposed to be used only for general "party-building activities" like ads promoting a party platform.

Initially, Reno said the act didn't apply to Gore's calls because he was raising soft money. But when documents turned up showing that some of the donations went to "hard money" accounts, she said that warranted more investigation.

Does the law apply at all to presidents and vice presidents?

The White House says no. Aides cite interpretations that certain laws don't cover the president unless they explicitly say they do. But Maskell says laws cover the president and vice president unless they are "expressly exempt."

By Mimi Hall and Gary Fields, USA TODAY