- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2000

Naming a special counsel to investigate Vice President Al Gore's role in a Buddhist temple fund-raiser would now be moot because the Justice Department took nearly four years to question him about it under oath, Senate Republicans said yesterday.
"It appears to me that it may well be too late at this point to have a special counsel, because it would interfere with the election in 2000," said Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of a Senate subcommittee investigating the Justice Department's handling of the 1996 campaign finance probe.
The Pennsylvania Republican, who first called in April 1997 for an outside counsel in the case, told Attorney General Janet Reno during a five-hour hearing he doubted a special counsel could be named to investigate Mr. Gore before the Democratic convention in August. Even if one were appointed, Mr. Specter said, it was "not even realistic" to suggest the probe could be completed before the November election.
"Now, it may be that the only alternative America has at this point in this election, is to leave it to the political process," he said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, also criticized the attorney general for the "lateness" of the Gore interview, saying the Justice Department failed to conduct a proper investigation of the temple accusations after they first surfaced.
"I believe your staff failed you. And in a sense, you failed to supervise in making that declination of the independent counsel at that early date without even commencing any investigation," he said. "I think that was an error, and that has caused us to be [still investigating] at this late stage."
Republicans noted that the department learned in 1996 of the event at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif., at which $65,000 was illegally raised for the Democratic National Committee, but never interviewed Mr. Gore about his role in the fund-raiser until April 18 of this year.
Maria Hsia, longtime Gore fund-raiser, was convicted in March on five felony counts for her part in hiding thousands of dollars of illegal contributions she solicited during the fund-raiser. Mr. Gore told Mr. Conrad he did not know the event was a fund-raiser, although documents show that his staff knew.
Republicans said Mr. Gore had been interviewed by a task force four times before he was ever questioned about the temple event.
The hearing was called in the wake of revelations last week by Mr. Specter that Miss Reno's new campaign task-force chief, Robert J. Conrad Jr., had like FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and former task force chief Charles G. LaBella recommended a special counsel be named to investigate Mr. Gore's fund-raising activities, including the temple event.
Mr. Conrad's recommendation came after he and four FBI agents interviewed Mr. Gore for four hours in April.
Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, agreed with his Republican colleagues it was "too late" to call for a special counsel, but suggested the task force expand its investigation to include the 2000 campaign and both parties.
He said Congress had "failed" to amend campaign finance laws and the Justice Department should focus on ongoing abuses.
Mr. Torricelli also recommended that Miss Reno begin an internal inquiry to discover the source of the leak on the Conrad recommendation. He called the leak "a violation of the law" and recommended the guilty party if found be prosecuted.
"I do not pretend to be giving advice on how you administer the Justice Department, but Madam Attorney General, someone has let the department down, someone has violated the laws of the United States in revealing information that should have belonged to you and your associates alone not the media, not me, not this committee, not any partisan political activity. Someone let you down," he said.
"I hope you are vigorous in finding out how that happened," he said.
During the hearing, Republicans never suggested that Miss Reno had political motives for waiting before questioning Mr. Gore about the temple fund-raiser.
When Mr. Specter and Mr. Sessions asked the attorney general directly why she had waited to conduct the interview until it was too late since now the matter cannot be resolved in a timely fashion before the November elections she declined to answer.
"I can't talk about the course of a pending investigation. I don't think that's right or proper to try something in a committee hearing as opposed to a court," she said, suggesting the Gore inquiry was continuing and a decision on whether a special counsel ultimately would be sought is pending.
Miss Reno, however, vigorously defended herself and the department in refusing to seek the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the vice president, saying she made "the best judgment I could, and I will continue to try to do that."
"Sound bites and quick conclusions are not conducive to thorough analysis," she said. "I think those matters should be handled properly and professionally, not in headlines but in courtrooms."
Miss Reno has twice refused to seek the appointment of an independent counsel for Mr. Gore, and she bristled at suggestions by Mr. Specter that she had "discounted everything you could" in examining the evidence against the vice president.
"No, I looked at everything I could," she said.
Meanwhile, the Gore campaign yesterday attacked Mr. Specter, accusing him of trying to damage the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
"He's been engaging in McCarthy-like tactics," said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane, referring to former Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy's communist-hunting hearings of the 1950s, adding that the veteran Republican senator was "turning the U.S. Congress into a scandal-industrial complex." He accused Texas Gov. George W. Bush of being "the CEO" of that complex.
Mr. Specter angrily denied the accusation during yesterday's hearing, saying he would "take the matter up with the vice president" to determine whether he had authorized the statement. If so, he said without elaboration, he would "take it up in some detail."

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