WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Janet Reno decided Tuesday against asking that an outside prosecutor investigate campaign fund-raising calls made by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, saying she acted on "the facts and the law--not pressure, politics or any other factor."
Reno's decision came after she met with FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who had disagreed with her--recommending that an independent counsel examine all the fund-raising allegations, not simply the phone calls, and avoid any possibility of conflict of interest.
The decision is especially important for Gore, freeing him from a potentially lengthy and exhaustive investigation that could stretch into his expected presidential bid in 2000.
But Reno stressed that her decision does not exonerate anyone and that the department will "vigorously" pursue its ongoing investigation of possible campaign finance violations. Those being investigated include several fund-raisers and donors with ties to Clinton and Gore.
Although it was widely anticipated, Reno's decision touched off a striking range of reactions--even within the White House. While the president released only a one-sentence statement, Gore spoke with reporters and warned of future partisan attacks.
"The attorney general made her decision based on a careful review of the law and the facts, and that's as it should be," said Clinton's statement.
But Republicans in Congress assailed the decision, with some complaining that Reno viewed her mandate too narrowly. Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who led a Senate committee investigation into a range of fund-raising activities, said information uncovered by his probe made clear the need for an independent counsel. Given the broad array of allegations and misdeeds, Reno's focus on the phone-call issue was like paying too much attention "to the tail of the horse" while ignoring the horse.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) put his response in stronger, more direct terms. Calling "absurd" the notion that Reno had handled the matter as required by law, Hatch said: "The bottom line is that the appearance of a conflict exists here--highlighted by the conflict between the attorney general and the director of the FBI." Several GOP leaders seized on that dispute. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, said he will ask Reno and Freeh to explain their disagreement in a public session on Tuesday, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said he may invite the pair to a closed session.
Reno also decided against seeking an independent counsel to investigate a lobbyist's allegation that former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary solicited a $25,000 contribution for a charitable organization in return for meeting with a delegation of Chinese petrochemical officials.
After reviewing documents and conducting more than 40 interviews, including the lobbyist, Johnnie Chung, investigators "developed no evidence that she (O'Leary) had anything to do with the solicitation of the charitable donation," Reno said in her statement.
O'Leary, in a statement, said she was "pleased that the system worked and that (she was) no longer under investigation," adding that she was "nevertheless distressed" by the impact of the allegations on her "integrity and professional reputation."
But Reno, without providing specifics, said the Justice Department will continue to investigate whether anyone else may have broken the law in connection with soliciting and paying the $25,000 donation to Africare.
The allegations against Clinton and Gore questioned whether phone calls they made to campaign donors from the White House violated the 114-year-old federal law against soliciting campaign funds while on federal property.
Clinton had said he did not recall making any such calls, but did not rule them out. An aide said the president made several calls from the White House's private quarters. Gore acknowledged making more than 40 calls from his White House office, but denied any wrongdoing.
In Clinton's case, Reno said, investigators uncovered three occasions when the president made fund-raising calls from the White House. In two of them, Clinton was not soliciting contributions, but thanking a contributor or fund-raisers, Reno said.
On the third occasion--Oct. 18, 1994--Clinton placed a number of fund-raising calls to potential contributors, but all were made from the White House residence, not the Oval Office or any other official White House space, according to telephone records, interviews and the president's schedule.
Citing a Justice Department opinion dating back to the Carter administration in 1979, Reno said the law against soliciting on federal property does not include fund-raising from residential areas of the White House.