Reno may reject independent counsel

WASHINGTON - Attorney General Janet Reno was moving toward rejecting an independent counsel inquiry into telephone fund-raising by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, senior officials said Saturday.

Reno had not made her final decision, but it could come as early as Monday, according to the officials, who requested anonymity.

Aides have prepared recommendations that she decline to ask a special court to appoint an independent counsel for the Clinton and Gore telephone calls. They also recommended she not seek a counsel to probe whether former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary solicited a charitable contribution from a lobbyist in return for a meeting.

Because Reno meets weekly with leaders of her campaign finance task force, their recommendations have not come as a surprise to her.

Reno has seen a preliminary version, a senior aide said Saturday, but revisions were under way on the wording of the explanation for the decisions.

The final version could reach Reno on Monday in time for her to make a ruling later in the day, two officials said. Under the law, she has until Dec. 2 to make up her mind.

Republicans in Congress have been pressuring her for the independent counsels, but they are not likely to be surprised if Reno declines. Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who chaired Senate hearings into the matters, has said he expects no prosecutions.

"I could cling to a small shred of hope that Janet Reno will reject this recommendation, if only to save her good name - but I think they're more concerned about damage control than conducting an investigation," Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson said Saturday at a Miami meeting of the Republican Governors Association.

Even if no independent counsels are sought for the phone calls or O'Leary, Reno's task force is still conducting a separate 30-day inquiry into whether one is needed to investigate what role Clinton may have played in the Interior Department's rejection of an Indian casino application. Rival tribes opposed to the casino contributed heavily to the Democratic Party.

A wide variety of other fund-raising activities also remain under investigation by the Justice Department and Reno has said she is ready to seek a counsel if any evidence emerges against Clinton or other top officials.

Prosecutors are preparing to seek indictments after Thanksgiving or early in December against two fund-raisers for allegedly arranging to conceal the identities of the real donors, Justice officials said earlier this week. They hope this move may prompt them or others to cooperate with the investigation.

Clinton and Gore were interviewed last week by FBI agents and prosecutors on the Justice Department's campaign finance task force about their telephone fund raising from government buildings.

A 114-year-old law, passed before general use of the telephone, bars solicitation of campaign contributions inside federal office buildings.

The 1883 Pendleton Act was designed to prevent federal officials from shaking down their subordinates at work for campaign donations. It has never been used, however, to prosecute officials for using their office telephones to solicit contributions from private citizens at home or work.

Officials said that played a big role in their evaluation because the independent counsel statute requires Reno to follow Justice Department precedents. The evidence of who made what calls for what type of contribution also was a factor, the officials said.

Gore has acknowledged making 46 fund-raising calls from his government office, but he said he was raising "soft money" for general party building and generic advertising, which Reno has said is not covered by the campaign finance laws.

Clinton has said he may have made fund-raising calls but can't recall them.

The O'Leary case was simpler because the law is clearer and "the evidence of a quid pro quo just wasn't there," one official said. Federal law bars officials from making a decision or awarding a contract or job in return for anything of value.

In O'Leary's case, lobbyist Johnny Chung said an aide to the then-energy secretary asked him to contribute $25,000 to Africare, one of her favorite charities, in return for her agreeing to meet some Chinese businessmen who were clients of his.

By The Associated Press

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