09/09/97 - 12:50 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Gore's calls: more political problem than legal?

WASHINGTON - Al Gore's 46 calls to Democratic donors from the White House are already a big political headache. Whether they pose a legal problem for the vice president is less clear.

The law in question makes it a crime for anyone in a federal work place to solicit or receive a political donation. But the Justice Department traditionally has enforced the law to protect government workers from being pressured by their bosses, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

Gore was calling people outside government.

Still, even if prosecutors ultimately conclude that they have no case against him, a lengthy process leading to that decision could affect Gore's political future.

"Those things can drag on for years; this could still be going on in 1999 and 2000," said Alan Abromowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. "I think that is why they would like to avoid that."

Attorney General Janet Reno is considering whether to seek appointment of an independent counsel to review Gore's calls. If the matter is referred to an independent counsel, the likelihood of a lengthy investigation is greatly increased - complicating Gore's quest for his party's presidential nomination in 2000.

"If history is any guide, the appointment of an independent counsel would mean the whole process will be drawn out and take an interminable length of time and that obviously gets closer and closer to the next campaign season," said Washington criminal-defense lawyer E. Lawrence Barcella Jr.

And independent counsels have been known to find new applications for federal criminal laws - raising the specter that a case could be brought even if Justice Department prosecutors would not pursue the matter, Barcella said.

The law barring political solicitations stems from an 1883 statute that created the modern civil service and aimed to eliminate the "spoils system" of political patronage.

The offense, punishable by up to three years in prison, "may arise from solicitations that can be characterized as 'shakedowns' of federal personnel," says the section on illegal solicitation.

One former Justice Department official who used to handle public-corruption cases said he could not recall any such cases ever being prosecuted.

The Justice Department has not prosecuted Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, after he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that he made calls soliciting donations from his Senate office.

"I do it wherever I can," Gramm was quoted as saying. "I can use a credit card. As long as I pay for the calls, I can make calls wherever I want to call."

How career government prosecutors have historically enforced a criminal statute, however, may not be a reliable guide to how an independent counsel would view a law, experts say.

Independent counsels "often feel compelled to get into unplowed areas of enforcement," Barcella said. "There is tremendous pressure on an independent counsel to look at statutes differently than a career prosecutor, because of the person (under investigation) and the pressure of the situation,"

Last spring, Reno told Congress there was no reason for an independent counsel because the donations Gore raised came in the form of "soft money" - contributions not covered by the law barring solicitation on government property.

But disclosures last week that the Democratic National Committee allocated $120,000 from six of the donors Gore called to its "hard money" fund prompted Reno to reopen the issue.

"Once you have the hard money distinction ... it makes it much more difficult" for Reno to decline to seek an independent counsel, Barcella said.

An issue for the Justice Department is whether Gore knew how the DNC was allocating the money.

If prosecutors determine he was unaware, that could make further steps less likely. But Reno faces political pressure from Republicans in Congress to seek court appointment of an independent counsel, no matter what.

Indeed, House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Monday at an appearance in Detroit that he expects Reno to take such action.

"I don't see how she can possibly avoid doing that," he said.

By The Associated Press