Attorney General Janet Reno is ordering another look at Vice President Al Gore's telephone calls soliciting campaign contributions to see whether an independent counsel should be named.
On Wednesday, Reno authorized a second 90-day preliminary investigation by her campaign finance task force into the 45 telephone calls Gore made from his office in the fall of 1995 and spring of 1996, according to court documents made public Thursday.Last December, she closed a similar 90-day probe of Gore's calls, saying there wasn't evidence to warrant an independent counsel investigation. Justice officials say that unless new evidence emerges during this 90-day probe, Reno is likely to again reject an independent counsel investigation.
As required by law, Reno relayed her decision to a three-judge court that picks counsels, but the court did not authorize her to publicly announce it, according to officials insisting on anonymity. The court released the documents Thursday morning.
"The authors of the act established a preliminary investigation period to allow us to ensure that any decision to appoint an independent counsel would be based on thorough analysis," Reno said Thursday in a written statement. "During the preliminary investigation, I will consider the facts and I will consider the law, but I will consider nothing else."
The Justice Department said the period allows Reno's investigators to consider established department prosecution policies and Gore's state of mind as they look into whether the facts support Gore's assertions during last fall's Justice inquiry that he did not knowingly solicit so-called hard money for specific candidates but instead only asked for soft money for party buildings and issue ads.
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said Thursday, "The vice president will continue to cooperate fully. While we understand the need for the Justice Department to complete its preliminary review, we are confident it will once again conclude that everything the vice president did was legal and proper."
Gore's attorney, James F. Neal, said the vice president has been interviewed twice about the calls and "has fully, completely and honestly answered every question."
Reaction was mixed from Republicans, who have demanded repeatedly that Reno appoint an independent counsel to look into the fund-raising activities of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.
The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said that although Reno's move "could be perceived as a delaying tactic, I feel it would be prudent to defer any conclusive comments on this matter until after the attorney general has had the opportunity to discuss this with me in greater detail."
Hatch is scheduled to be briefed Tuesday by Reno and the former chief of her campaign finance task force, Charles LaBella, on the case and on LaBella's July 16 memo urging her to seek an independent counsel.
Citing that memo and similar recommendation last fall from FBI Director Louis Freeh, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., called Reno's decision "inaction."
Gore, meanwhile, met a warm but somewhat ambivalent crowd in California as he returned from his Hawaiian vacation to a new examination of his fund-raising calls.
While attending a $250,000 fund-raiser Wednesday for former employee Michela Alioto, who is running for California secretary of state, Gore carefully stuck to earlier statements about the president his troubles and was kept away from reporters.
"I'm proud of the leadership that President Bill Clinton has brought to the United States of America," Gore said. "I am honored to serve with him and call him a friend," Gore said.