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Clinton, Gore Interviewed in 1996 Fund-Raising Inquiry

Politics: Justice Department investigators question each under oath. Both are told they are not targets of the probe, officials say.

April 22, 2000|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Justice Department officials investigating 1996 campaign fund-raising abuses interviewed President Clinton on Friday and Vice President Al Gore on Tuesday, the White House said Friday evening.

In a terse, written statement issued with official Washington already shut down for the Easter holiday, White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said: "The president and the vice president cooperated fully with the task force and voluntarily agreed to be interviewed this week."

The White House declined further comment.

The campaign finance issue is particularly sensitive for Gore as he runs for the presidency. The issue has resonated with voters and had fueled the ultimately unsuccessful Republican primary campaign of Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Gore's solicitation of campaign contributions in 1996, using a phone in his White House office, and his attendance at a campaign fund-raising event at a Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif., have the potential of becoming an albatross around his neck as the campaign heats up. When the temple appearance first was disclosed, Gore said that he believed it was a "community outreach" event, but he later acknowledged that he knew it was "finance-related."

Clinton and Gore were interviewed under oath in sessions that lasted about four hours, a White House official said. The official would not discuss the topics raised in the interviews.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Clinton was interviewed in the Treaty Room on the second floor of the White House residence and that Gore met with the investigators in the dining room of the vice presidential residence.

Chris Lehane, Gore's campaign spokesman, said that the vice president was interviewed by Robert J. Conrad Jr., who heads the task force. James Neal, Gore's private lawyer, was officially informed that the vice president was not a target of the inquiry, Lehane said.

The president was also informed that he was not a target, a White House aide said.

In legal parlance, a target is a person under investigation and a non-target is interviewed for knowledge as a potential witness.

Lehane said that Gore's campaign had been asked by the task force not to mention the interview until after the president had been questioned.

Returning to Washington from Detroit late Friday, Gore refused to say what investigators asked him. He said he had no idea if the task force is nearing the end of its investigation. Asked if this could have an effect on the presidential election, he said: "No."

He added: "Consistent with past practice, I can't go into any of the substance of what they're looking at. I'm not going to do that. But I volunteered to cooperate fully, as I have from the beginning of their investigation, and that's it."

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has refused to meet the demands of GOP lawmakers to refer allegations of campaign finance abuses to an independent counsel. At the center of the inquiry are claims that the Democratic Party, during the 1996 presidential campaign, accepted illegal foreign contributions and violated other campaign finance laws.

The task force is also looking into whether investigators were obstructed by the White House staff's failure to surrender e-mail messages related to the allegations.

The Justice Department itself has come under fire for its handling of the investigation. Its former chief campaign finance investigator, named to the job by Reno, accused senior officials in a report the attorney general kept sealed for nearly two years of engaging in "gamesmanship" and legal "contortions" to avoid seeking appointment of an independent counsel.

The report, prepared by Charles G. LaBella, said that special treatment was given to Clinton, Gore, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and former White House aide Harold M. Ickes.

For Clinton, the interview was the third time he has met with investigators looking into 1996 campaign finances. The interview was conducted by five members of the campaign task force, including four FBI agents.

Gore's interview, his fifth in the inquiry, was conducted by two FBI agents and a prosecutor.

Each was represented by private attorneys--David E. Kendall and Nicole Seligman, for the president, and Neal for Gore--and by their official counsels--Beth Nolan, the White House counsel, and Elizabeth Brown, Gore's vice presidential counsel.

Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this story.

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