WASHINGTON - President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were interviewed this week by Justice Department officials investigating questionable campaign fund raising in 1994 and 1996, the White House said today.
Presidential spokesman Mike McCurry said the interviews were conducted separately Tuesday, in the White House residential quarters and at the vice presidential mansion. Attorneys for Clinton and Gore were present.
"It was a very professional interview. The FBI asked all the questions they wanted to ask - every one - and the vice president answered every one of them," Gore's Tennessee-based attorney, Jim Neal, said in a telephone interview. He declined further comment.
David Kendall, the president's attorney, said, "We answered all of their questions." He, too, declined to say more.
Aides for Clinton and Gore had made it known the interviews would probably be requested and their bosses would not object. And Clinton has been interviewed by Whitewater investigators. Still, a sitting president and vice president submitting to investigators' questioning marks a dramatic step forward in the high-profile inquiry.
Attorney General Janet Reno has until Dec. 2 to decide whether to request an independent prosecutor to investigate the fund-raising practices of Clinton and Gore. Questions have been raised about the pair soliciting donations from the White House.
Gore has said he did solicit donations; Clinton has said he cannot recall whether he did or not. They both say such calls are legal.
The appointment of a special prosecutor could expose Clinton and Gore to questions about the White House's influence over Democratic National Committee TV ad strategies and alleged attempts by China to influence American elections. The inquiry also would shadow Gore's bid to succeed Clinton in 2001.
McCurry referred reporters to a statement Wednesday by Clinton's attorney, Kendall, and Gore's attorney, George T. Frampton.
"The subject of the interviews was the telephonic solicitation of contributions in the 1994-1996 time period," the statement said. "As both the president and vice president have previously announced, they are cooperating fully with this investigation and voluntarily agreed when interviews were requested."
"Consistent with past practice, no further statement about the content of the interviews will be made at this time."
McCurry declined further comment. Frampton could not be immediately reached.
Neal would not say how long the questioning lasted or whether it was limited to the telephone calls.
Two officials involved in the questioning, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Clinton and Gore were not under oath. Clinton was interviewed by two FBI agents and four Justice Department attorneys, said one officials, who added that questions were limited to the telephone solicitation issue.
The statement released by the White House was dated Tuesday. McCurry said he learned about the interviews late Tuesday, and he decided not to distribute the statement until today.
Earlier this fall, the White House turned over to investigators records indicating Clinton made an Oval Office call to a group of fund-raisers in 1995 after being requested to "ask for their help." In addition, presidential aides found billing records of long-distance calls to six donors from the private living quarters in 1994 on the same day Clinton had been asked to solicit them for money.
His aides have maintained that Clinton made the calls only to say thanks and did not ask for help.
The Justice Department also is investigating whether a special prosecutor is needed to investigate Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to determine whether politics played a role in his rejection of a proposed casino license. A similar inquiry is focused on whether a lobbyist was asked for a charitable contributions in exchange for seeing former Energy Department Secretary Hazel O'Leary.
Meanwhile, congressional inquiries are increasing pressure on the administration.
Three people who contributed to Clinton's re-election campaign have told House investigators an employee of Johnny Chung, a central figure in the investigation of campaign fund raising, asked them to make the contributions and later reimbursed them, according to a House source.
Investigators were told that Chung's part-time bookkeeper, Nancy Na-Chi Lee, asked four people to make out $1,000 checks to the Clinton-Gore '96 campaign, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Ms. Lee was said to have immediately reimbursed the donors in cash, said the source.
Such arrangements would be illegal under federal election law, which bars contributors from giving money in the name of another to hide the true source of the money.
It was the first allegation of laundered contributions directly to the Clinton-Gore '96 campaign. The Democratic National Committee has returned nearly $3 million because the money came from questionable sources, including some donations made in the name of others.
The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee has issued a subpoena for records of the re-election campaign, said Robert Neuman, a spokesman for the campaign's Legal Compliance Committee.
Chung was described in a 1995 White House memo as a hustler who should be regarded with caution.
In March 1995, he handed a $50,000 check, made out to the Democratic Party, to Maggie Williams, then chief of staff to Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the White House. A day later, he escorted a group of Chinese businessmen to the White House to watch Clinton tape his weekly radio address.
By The Associated Press
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