Senate panel asks for independent counsel

WASHINGTON - The Senate committee investigating political campaign fund-raising will send a legal brief to Attorney General Janet Reno this week asking her to appoint an independent counsel.

Committee Chairman Fred Thompson said at a hearing Wednesday that White House videotapes of Democratic fund-raising events were confirmation that President Clinton had not complied with the intent of the law setting campaign spending limits. He said only an independent counsel could make a legal determination whether Clinton should be prosecuted.

The legal brief will be the first time the committee formally asks for an independent counsel. Individual members already have done so.

Thompson's statements were his most direct accusation of wrongdoing against Clinton since the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee began its hearings in July.

Thompson, R-Tenn., said Clinton "signed a contract" with voters not to exceed spending limits tied to his receipt of federal funds for his presidential campaign. In 1996, the maximum was $37 million per presidential candidate for the primary and $62 million for the general election.

But Thompson said Clinton broke that contract and skirted the law by also orchestrating $45 million in Democratic National Committee advertising. There is no spending limit for such "issue ads" run by a party, as long as they don't promote a specific candidate.

But previously released documents and newly released videotapes show that Clinton helped write the issue ads, coordinated where they would run and boasted about how they helped his standing in presidential polls, Thompson said.

"The intent of the law is clear, and clearly the intent of the law is not being complied with here," Thompson said. "They found a way to have their cake and eat it too."

Legal opinions are mixed as to whether the Clinton campaign was technically in compliance with the campaign spending regulations. The White House has said the president acted legally at all times.

Reno has repeatedly denied requests for an independent counsel to look into campaign fund-raising. She has said there has been no clear indication that laws may have been broken.

At Wednesday's hearing, Democrats countered with tapes showing former President Reagan asking donors for money at the White House. They also passed out a transcript of a TV interview with Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential candidate, in which he said the party ran issue ads that helped him. Dole has said issue ads should not be counted against spending ceilings.

Thompson said Dole's ads would trigger the same committee scrutiny if evidence is presented showing he closely coordinated the ad strategy.

"I guess it's somewhat of a standoff," said Sen. John Glenn, the ranking Democrat on the committee. "We should clean this whole mess up. It's a bipartisan problem no matter if we want to admit it or not."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., described the issue ads by Clinton and Dole as "an end run" designed to spend more money on their presidential campaigns. "(The ads) are probably legal, but part of a process that went way over the line to what is proper," he said. "They were miles away from the clear intention of the law.

"One deterrent to bad behavior in the year 2000 would be that some of the people who did bad behavior in 1996 go to jail. I hope that happens."

The Senate panel plans at least two more weeks of hearings. The committee's authority expires Dec. 31.

Thompson's committee has spent $2.2 million this year. He is authorized to spend $4.3 million.

A House of Representatives committee also investigating campaign fund-raising has no deadline. Since January, that panel has spent $5.4 million. It is authorized to spend $11.7 million this year.

By comparison, the joint House-Senate investigation of the Iran-contra deal to swap arms for hostages took 303 days and cost $3.6 million. That would be nearly $5 million in 1997 dollars, says Don Richey, associate Senate historian.

By Tom Squitieri, USA TODAY

Contributing: Jessica Lee