Justice: FBI fully involved in campaign finance probe

WASHINGTON - While awaiting Attorney General Janet Reno's decision on a campaign finance independent counsel, Justice Department officials disputed reports Monday suggesting FBI Director Louis J. Freeh had not been fully consulted.

Reno did not make any final decisions Monday on recommendations by her campaign finance task force, senior officials said. Justice prosecutors have recommended she decline to seek an independent counsel to investigate telephone fund raising by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, officials said over the weekend.

Decisions could come Tuesday, though Reno has until Dec. 2. She is leaving near midday for Mexico City and meetings with her counterparts around the hemisphere.

Justice prosecutors also have recommended she reject an independent counsel for allegations that former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary solicited a charitable contribution in return for meeting with Chinese businessmen.

The O'Leary case was considered the simplest and was closest to a decision, followed by Clinton's case, a senior official said Monday, requesting anonymity. The more complex Gore case trailed the others.

Republicans have been pressing Reno for months to apply to a special three-judge court for appointment of an independent counsel to look into all the allegations.

They were sure to criticize her if she followed her aides' advice. But even Republican Sen. Fred Thompson, who chaired Senate hearings on the subject, has predicted that no one will be prosecuted for soliciting contributions by telephone.

Meantime, Justice officials were privately furious over reports in Monday's Washington Post and New York Times quoting unnamed government officials as complaining that Freeh has not been consulted on Reno's decision.

Since September when Reno shook up the task force, Freeh has joined Reno in her weekly meetings with the task force, and has sent a deputy when he has been out of town, Justice officials said.

The direction of the investigation is reviewed in these meetings, which is why the task force's recommendations come as no surprise to Reno and should not surprise Freeh either, these officials said. In addition, the FBI receives copies of the recommendations as they are written.

Freeh declined to discuss the matter Monday, but an official familiar with his thinking said Freeh was content to let Reno's decision-making process run its course and, if he is upset at the conclusion, make that fact public.

Another FBI official, also requesting anonymity, added, "Every side is going to be heard. Reno's always been willing to do that."

In an unprecedented move that went beyond the requirements of the independent counsel law, Reno told the House Judiciary Committee last month that no investigative avenue in the campaign finance investigation would be closed without a personal signoff from Freeh, as well as from her.

That effectively gave Freeh a veto over the course of the case, because the independent counsel law requires Reno to request a special prosecutor if at the end of a preliminary inquiry she cannot resolve whether there is enough evidence to support a prosecution.

The mechanism for giving Freeh that role, Justice officials said, was adding him to the weekly task force meetings. But these Justice officials have emphasized, as some FBI officials did Monday, that the law gives Reno the final decision on whether to seek a counsel.

Even if Reno declined to hand the telephone solicitation to a special prosecutor, she is engaged in a 30-day inquiry into whether a prosecutor should be named to investigate what role Clinton played, if any, in the Interior Department's rejection of an Indian casino. The casino was opposed by other tribes who donated to the Democratic party. Reno also has a preliminary inquiry into whether Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's role should be probed by an independent counsel.

Among the reasons Justice aides cited for rejecting a counsel over the Clinton and Gore telephone calls was that the independent counsel law requires Reno to follow Justice Department precedents. The 114-year-old statute barring solicitation of campaign contributions in federal offices was designed to stop shakedowns of lower level federal employees at work and has never been used to prosecute federal officials who telephoned private citizens at their homes or offices for donations.

By The Associated Press

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