WASHINGTON - Attorney General Janet Reno's decision not to seek an independent counsel to investigate fund-raising phone calls by President Clinton and Vice President Gore doesn't mean the administration is in the clear.
Reno still might appoint a special counsel to investigate whether campaign contributions influenced Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's decision to reject a request from three Indian tribes to open a casino.
If that happens, it would open a Pandora's box of fund-raising questions that could lead back into the White House, Justice officials and legal scholars say.
"The Babbitt one seems to be most dangerous for now for the administration because there is more concrete information there that there may have been some (improper) conversations," Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein says.
Reno has a Feb. 11, 1998, deadline in the Babbitt case. Babbitt has denied any impropriety and said the casino was turned down on its merits.
The White House also faces continuing investigations by the Justice Department and Congress.
A Justice task force is investigating people and transactions connected to Clinton's 1996 campaign. The indictments of two Democratic fund-raisers, Charlie Yah Lin Trie and Maria Hsia, are likely this month, officials said.
"Any decision not to ask for an independent counsel does not mean that a person has been exonerated or that the work of the campaign finance task force is ended," Reno said Tuesday.
If the task force investigation leads to Clinton or top administration figures, Reno said, she would seek an independent counsel.
"Because these (fund-raising) issues cover a wide range, you don't know where the biggest battleground should be," says Kent Cooper, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.
Reno's action Tuesday "doesn't necessarily rule out that she might, somewhere down the line, appoint an independent counsel to look at the overall question . . . of a conspiracy to violate campaign laws," says Richard Thornburgh, attorney general during the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Any independent counsel could poke into other areas of the fund-raising furor, officials said. These could include:
"There are seven or eight different key issues that have a better chance of being investigated" with a special counsel, Cooper says.
"Take them one at a time in little corners and they may not have enough in themselves to justify a special counsel," he says. "A larger conspiracy-type of case is still possible."
Also dogging the White House are congressional inquiries into campaign funding irregularities.
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, asked Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh on Tuesday to testify next week before his panel. Burton also called on Reno to resign. Burton's committee plans to hold hearings well into 1998.
But the primary concern to the White House is a possible independent counsel looking at the Babbitt case, officials said.
Any Babbitt investigation would center on whether political donations influenced policy decisions within the Interior Department and White House.
After that could come a wider search for what is known as "patterns of improper conduct," investigators said.
Once an independent counsel "gets a toe in the door," the investigation could quickly expand from its original mandate, Rothstein says. The counsels "have unlimited budgets and unlimited time, and individual items of alleged wrongdoing cannot really be separated from other individual items and a larger pattern, if there is any."
In 1995, Babbitt rejected a request from three bands of Chippewa Indians to turn a dog track in Wisconsin into a casino. Lower-level officials in the Bureau of Indian Affairs thought the casino should be approved.
After Babbitt rejected the plan, neighboring tribes opposed to the casino contributed more than $270,000 to the Democratic Party.
Unlike the Gore and Clinton inquiries, the Justice review of Babbitt began with a finding that there was information pointing to the possible commission of a crime.
In response to a letter from a House committee demanding an independent counsel for the White House role in the casino decision, Justice investigators also are reviewing whether Clinton or other White House officials played roles. Reno has a mid-December deadline for responding to the House letter.
Last month, the White House released a tape showing a Democratic lobbyist who opposed the casino hosting Clinton at a fund-raiser the night before the casino request was rejected by the Interior Department.
In addition, testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs by Babbitt and others detailed conversations with White House officials about the casino decision.
By Tom Squitieri, USA TODAY