O'Leary's fate also rested with Reno

WASHINGTON - Former Energy secretary Hazel O'Leary was largely overlooked in the hoopla over whether an independent counsel would be sought to probe the president and vice president. But her future was hanging on a similar thread.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Janet Reno said she won't seek an independent counsel to investigate allegations that O'Leary solicited a $25,000 charitable contribution for meeting some Chinese businessmen.

An extensive review of documents and more than 40 interviews revealed no evidence that O'Leary had anything to do with the solicitation, Reno said Tuesday.

Reno said a Justice Department task force will continue to review if anyone else had broken the law in connection with the $25,000 donation.

O'Leary, who left her Energy post at the start of this year, was in her suburban Washington, D.C., office, when she was informed of Reno's decision by a reporter. She is a consultant on energy matters.

"I am relieved but not surprised by the attorney general's decision," O'Leary said. "I am pleased that the system worked and that I am no longer under investigation."

"Despite the extreme turmoil and pain surrounding the events following the allegation, I will move on wiser and stronger," she added.

Reno began her investigation after California fund-raiser Johnny Chung told NBC News that an October 1995, meeting took place between O'Leary and some Chinese petrochemical executives on the same day he wrote a $25,000 check to AfriCare.

AfriCare is a charity which promotes economic development and health care in rural Africa. O'Leary sits on the group's board of directors.

Chung is a key figure in the campaign-finance scandal. Last month, he gave limited testimony behind closed doors to a House panel investigating fund-raising irregularities. He was also interviewed by the Justice task force, Reno said.

Chung said that when he was trying to arrange a meeting between some Chinese friends and O'Leary, a lower level Energy Department official and lobbyist told him, "It will be nice if you make your donation to AfriCare."

But Justice investigators said they found no evidence that the conversation ever occurred with the lower level Energy Department official, a man who has not been identified.

O'Leary plans a more detailed response to the allegations after her appearance before the House Governmental Affairs and Oversight Committee, scheduled for Dec. 16.

O'Leary has denied any impropriety from the outset. She said the allegation was "ludicrous" because the Chinese official - the managing director of China's petrochemical industry - was someone she had met before, during a trip to China.

By Tom Squitieri, USA TODAY