09/26/97 - 03:26 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Reno checking into question of phoning from buildings

WASHINGTON - Attorney General Janet Reno said Friday the Justice Department is trying to determine whether fund-raising calls by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore are covered by an 1883 law barring solicitation in federal buildings.

"I think that there are many factors involving the phone calls that have got to be considered, both in terms of facts and in terms of law," Reno told her weekly news conference.

She refused to predict whether her investigators would resolve the questions by next Friday, the deadline by which she must decide whether to take the next step that could lead to seeking appointment of an independent counsel in the case.

By then, she must decide whether Justice investigators need up to 90 days for a preliminary investigation of Gore to resolve whether a full probe by a special prosecutor is needed. A similar decision on Clinton is due later in October. Reno would not predict whether the two decisions would be the same.

"They're difficult decisions," Reno said. "They involve complex issues of law. They involve many facts. And they have great consequences, one way or the other."

In another development, a former top White House aide told Senate investigators that Clinton called several major Democratic donors from the White House in 1994 to solicit contributions.

Harold M. Ickes, former White House deputy chief of staff, said in a sworn deposition, "I do know that he made telephone calls, a limited number in 1994. I remember his making some calls in '94 from the residence, a very small number."

The Los Angeles Times first disclosed the deposition.

In her news conference, Reno also brushed aside threats of impeachment from some Republicans in Congress and suggestions that White House officials might try to sway her decision.

"No. I haven't felt any pressure from the White House whatsoever. But I haven't felt any pressure from Congress whatsoever. Or the press," Reno said. "If somebody wants to impeach me, then I'll face that issue at that point, but that won't be a factor in my consideration."

A Justice task force is studying whether telephone calls by Clinton and Gore from the White House to private citizens at work or home to raise money during that last president campaign violate a law barring solicitations for a federal election campaign in any federal building where official duties are carried out.

The inquiries were triggered earlier this month when it was learned that some of the money raised was assigned by Democratic National Committee officials to so-called hard money accounts used for the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign, rather than so-called soft money accounts used for issue advertising or strengthening the party. Reno has said the law does not cover soft money contributions.

The Congressional Research Service has said the law was passed to prevent top federal officials from shaking down underlings for donations and has never been used to prosecute officials for telephone calls from federal buildings to contributors outside the government.

Reno said that was her understanding of the law's history as well. "What we're trying to do is to see how the law has been applied, how it would be applied on the facts as developed in this case," Reno said.

The department's past prosecution practices "will be a relevant question that we certainly consider as part of the process," Reno added.

In a 1995 interview, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, bragged about averaging two hours a day making telephone calls for his presidential campaign, calling from his home, his car, his mobile phone - and that he could place calls from his Senate office. He has not been prosecuted.

Reno added that investigators also are reviewing past opinions on whether the statute even applies to the president and vice president at all.

Her spokesman, Bert Brandenburg, said other issues under review include whether the law applies if some of the calls were made from Clinton's White House residence, rather than from the Oval Office, and what legal liability they might have if subordinates subsequently moved soft contributions into hard money accounts.

By The Associated Press

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