WASHINGTON - Attorney General Janet Reno said Monday she has not decided yet whether to seek an independent counsel to investigate telephone fund-raising by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Republicans predicted she would not.
Leaving a World AIDS Day ceremony at the Justice Department, Reno was asked if she had reached decisions on any independent counsel matters. "No, not yet," she replied.
"I think it probably will be" Tuesday before a decision is reached, she added.
Tuesday is the deadline for her to inform a special court of her decisions.
Reno met for 2 1/2 hours Sunday with top aides and leaders of her campaign finance task force, who have recommended she decline to seek independent counsels to probe Clinton and Gore or former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary.
Aides indicated that, as is her practice at pre-decision meetings, Reno asked questions but didn't volunteer her thinking.
Nevertheless, Reno's aides anticipated she would follow the recommendation of her task force against seeking independent counsels on Clinton, Gore or O'Leary. Reno's questions about the documents explaining those decisions, they noted, have not pointed to any change in the direction that the task force and Reno have been headed for several weeks.
But Republicans used appearances on Sunday talk shows to predict that Reno would opt against an independent counsel.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday" that Justice Department aides were "politically advising her not to do this rather than advising her to live within the law and do what's right."
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he also was resigned to a negative decision by Reno. "I think she just has a blind spot," he said on ABC's This Week.
Gore has acknowledged making telephone calls from the White House to solicit contributions for the 1996 election campaign. Clinton has said he may have made calls but doesn't recall having done so.
The Justice Department task force has concluded that the 114-year-old statute that bars solicitation of campaign contributions in federal offices was aimed at protecting federal workers and was never intended to ban phone calls to private citizens from officials seeking contributions.
Hatch said he agreed with Reno that phone calls alone were not enough to trigger the Independent Counsel Act. "That's a false and bogus issue," he said on NBC's Meet the Press.
But he said that by focusing on that single issue, Reno was ignoring larger reasons for appointing an independent counsel. He said those include "the misuse of soft money, the misuse of hard money, the collection of hard money in an improper way, the influence of foreigners in our process."
Soft money refers to funds earmarked for general purposes by a political party, while hard money is intended for specific candidates.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., argued the Independent Counsel Act is triggered only when there is specific evidence that a crime has been committed, and that exhaustive investigations by congressional committees have failed to turn up such evidence.
"They have come up with evidence of where we have abuses that require, I think, changes in the law, which paradoxically, of course, most of the Republicans are against," Frank said on NBC.
Justice Department spokesman Bert Brandenburg said Reno spent part of Sunday studying the findings of the task force. In mid-afternoon, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, task force chief Charles LaBella and several other lawyers arrived for the meeting with Reno.
Brandenburg insisted that Reno's decision would be based on the evidence. "The attorney general is ready and willing to take any credible allegations forward as she has done on the issue of the phone calls," he said. "Where they are specific and credible, we will take them forward, where not, we cannot."
Hatch also contended that "war has already broken out" between the FBI and Justice Department attorneys because FBI Director Louis Freeh supports an independent counsel.
"When you have a squabble between the attorney general and the head of the FBI, you know darn well that there's a reason to appoint an independent counsel and to get rid of the conflict of interest," he said on NBC.
Freeh and Reno met last week, Brandenburg said, and "the FBI has had every opportunity to make its views known."
Along with the decision on the Clinton-Gore investigation, Reno also must decide by Tuesday whether an independent counsel should investigate allegations that then-Energy Secretary O'Leary solicited a charitable contribution in return for meeting with a group of Chinese businessmen.
She has until mid-December to decide whether the independent counsel should be named to look into what role, if any, Clinton played in the Interior Department's rejection of an Indian casino that was opposed by other tribes that had donated to the Democratic Party. She has until Feb. 11, 1998, to decide whether a counsel is needed to look at Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's role in that decision.
By The Associated Press
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