09/22/97 - 12:18 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Analysts: Prosecution is unprecedented

WASHINGTON - Clinton administration defenders Sunday predicted the Justice Department would not make the president and vice president the first potential criminal targets under a law apparently never used to prosecute officials for making fund-raising telephone calls from federal property.

It remains unclear whether the century-old law, prohibiting political solicitations on federal property, applies to fund-raising activities of President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

But legal experts agree that if a Justice Department review determines an independent counsel is needed to investigate fund-raising calls from the White House, any prosecution of such telephone solicitations would be unprecedented.

On Saturday, the Justice Department revealed that it has opened a 30-day review of President Clinton's involvement in campaign money-raising irregularities last year. The same review of Gore's activities began earlier this month. Attorney General Janet Reno must decide whether to launch a more extensive 90-day preliminary investigation that could lead to her seeking a special prosecutor.

Section 607 of the U.S. criminal code states it is "unlawful for any person to solicit or receive any contribution ... in any (federal government) room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties."

Just as important as the interpretation of the law, enacted late in the 19th Century, is Justice Department prosecution guidelines.

The guidelines state that an independent counsel should not be sought unless - under normal circumstances - violations of the same law would lead to a prosecution.

Unfortunately for Clinton and Gore, the independent counsel law leaves Reno little discretion. She could turn down a counsel on those grounds only if she states the department's own lawyers, as a matter of policy, would never bring a prosecution under the same circumstances.

The law itself is vague in several instances. It's not clear whether the individual being solicited must be in a federal building, or must be a federal employee. The statute was enacted to protect government workers from political shakedowns by their bosses.

It's also unclear whether the law applies to Clinton, who said he may have made fund-raising calls from the White House, and Gore, who admitted he made phone solicitations to 48 donors but contended he was not covered by the statute.

Philip B. Heymann, a former deputy attorney general under Reno, wrote in Sunday's New York Times that, "It remains a very bad idea to bend general standards of prosecution either to reach or avoid political figures."

Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., said the statute "has never been used to prosecute anyone for making a telephone call, never been used for soliciting someone who is not a federal employee."

And former White House counsel Jack Quinn - who was a top Gore aid before moving to the counsel's office - contended that "If you were the president and asked me today if this was an unlawful activity, I would say no, it's not." He said neither the law nor a memo by his predecessor - warning against solicitations from the White House - do not apply to the president and vice president.

Heymann and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, agreed, however, that telephone calls are not really the important issue.

"I continue to support calls for an independent counsel to investigate solicitation of donations from forbidden contributors," Heymann said.

Added Hatch: "The most serious parts of this aren't necessarily the telephone calls made from the White House or government property, it's the foreign influence in the last presidential campaign and the transfer and utilization of soft money blatantly used as hard money."

Soft money is the unlimited donations by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals that do not go to individual candidates. Hard money, which is subject to strict limits, goes to particular candidates.

The wider allegations that Hatch referred to are under investigation by a task force of Justice Department prosecutions, which just received new leadership last week.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.