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05/03/98- Updated 05:30 PM ET

Reno may get new campaign evidence

WASHINGTON - Attorney General Janet Reno will soon get evidence that will force her to appoint a new independent counsel to look into White House campaign finance practices, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Sunday.

Reno said she will listen to all her advisers, and that if sufficient evidence exists to trigger naming an independent counsel, "I'm going to do it."

Later, the Justice Department lawyer leading the investigation said he has no plan to recommend at this time that Reno seek appointment of an independent counsel.

Last December, over the protests of Sen. Orrin Hatch, the judiciary chairman, and other Republican leaders, Reno said she would not request an independent counsel to look into fund-raising calls that President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore made from the White House. She said they had broken no federal laws, although the Justice Department was continuing its investigation into Democratic Party fund-raising activities.

Hatch, R-Utah, said on Fox News Sunday that those Justice investigators have produced information needed to require an outside counsel.

"I think the case is overwhelming that there should have been an independent counsel long before now, and I believe that within the near future Janet Reno will have no choice but to appoint an independent counsel in the campaign finance thing," Hatch said.

The Independent Counsel Act is invoked when credible evidence has surfaced that a senior administration official has committed a crime. Reno has requested four independent counsels, most famously Kenneth Starr to investigate the Whitewater land deal and, more recently, Clinton's relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Hatch said he and Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, recently had a "hard-hitting" meeting with Charles La Bella, Justice's top prosecutor for campaign finance.

A report in Sunday's New York Times that La Bella was urging Reno to appoint an independent counsel was "mostly right," Hatch said. "I am satisfied that Mr. La Bella has made good recommendations to the attorney general. There are some things that are going to happen there that I think are very revealing."

La Bella, in a statement, said that while he recommended to Reno last year that she seek an outside investigator, he was "completely comfortable" with her decision not to do so and that since then, he has not renewed that recommendation.

Hatch said Justice investigators are "putting the squeeze" on Johnny Chung, Charlie Trie and others allegedly involved in funneling illegal contributions to the Democratic Party, and "there's an awful lot of information there."

Reno, also appearing on Fox, said she would listen to all those involved in the investigation, including La Bella, before making a final decision.

"If he at any time thinks that the independent counsel statute is triggered, I want to know about it," she said. Then, if the evidence warrants an independent counsel, she said: "I'm going to do it."

Reno also said that she would welcome a decision by La Bella to postpone his decision to return to San Diego, where he was formerly assistant U.S. attorney.

She said if he does leave as planned, "I will make sure that there is a firm, complete transition." La Bella said he wouldn't leave until his replacement had been chosen.

House Republicans, meanwhile, continued to accuse Democrats of blocking a House investigation into campaign-finance irregularities by refusing to grant immunity to witnesses.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, told ABC's This Week With Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts he hoped the Democrats would reconsider their position in another vote this week "so that we can get to the truth." If not, he said, Republicans could move the hearings away from the Government Reform Committee and to another panel where Republicans have a large enough majority to win immunity for the witnesses.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said Democrats are blocking testimony because of "the complete distrust of the, I think, irresponsible incompetence" of committee chairman Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind.

Democrats contend Burton is leading a partisan effort to "get the president," and Frank told Fox that Burton was "incompetent, out of control, he is the worst kind of McCarthyite."

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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