09/04/97 - 12:54 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version
WASHINGTON - The Justice Department has launched a preliminary review into new allegations that Vice President Gore violated campaign fund-raising laws - the first time a vice president has been the prime focus of such an action.
The review is the initial step toward possible appointment of a special counsel to probe the fund-raising furor.
The announcement follows acknowledgment by the Democratic National Committee Wednesday that $120,000 of the money Gore raised in 1996 telephone calls from his White House office was assigned to its "hard-money" account, which helps candidates directly.
Federal election law bans government officials from raising money for specific candidates in federal buildings.
"We remain confident that no law or regulation was violated," White House lawyer Charles Burson said.
The DNC said Gore did not know the money he raised was placed in that account. Instead, Gore believed it would go in a separate "soft-money" fund to be used for party-building activities, which he has said would not violate election law.
Justice's decision is a major blow to the White House. Only Tuesday it released dozens of documents in a bid to insulate Gore, front-runner for the party's 2000 presidential nomination, from accusations of fund-raising improprieties.
"It is very significant. It sets in motion a process which almost inevitably will lead to a request for an independent counsel," said Joseph DeGenova, a Republican who is a former independent counsel.
But Justice Department spokesman Bert Brandenburg said, "We're still a long way off from an independent counsel."
The department has been conducting a more general probe into fund-raising during the 1996 election. But the review announced Wednesday specifically mentions Gore.
Thursday, Gore will be the focus of a Senate committee that is resuming its investigation into campaign fund-raising abuses. First to testify: a trio of Buddhist nuns who will explain how they allegedly laundered $5,000 apiece for the Democrats during a fund-raising event at a temple where Gore was the featured attraction.
Wednesday night, Gore attended a $10,000-a-ticket dinner at the home of Sen. Charles Robb, D-Va. to help Virginia Democrats raise $500,000 for their gubernatorial candidate.
By Tom Squitieri and Judi Hasson, USA TODAY
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