- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2000

The long-suppressed report by the Justice Department's former chief investigator into the Clinton-Gore campaign-money scandal has raised new questions about one of the administration's worst cover-ups.

The questions focus on Al Gore's role in the White House fund-raising scandal, in which he and others in Bill Clinton's inner circle treated the campaign-finance laws with contempt.

Charles LaBella's blistering task-force report, virtually ignored by the Big Three TV networks, accuses Justice Department attorneys of engaging in extraordinary legal "contortions" and "intellectually dishonest" double standards to squelch an independent investigation into the White House's campaign-finance abuses.

Mr. LaBella's impassioned July 1998 recommendation that an independent counsel was needed to investigate the entire ugly mess was turned down by Attorney General Janet Reno, despite the evidence Mr. Gore was among those who raised hard money in the 1996 campaign from the White House in violation of federal campaign-finance laws.

Mr. LaBella, whose request was backed by FBI director Louis Freeh, said Miss Reno bent over backward to give the benefit of the doubt to the president, Mr. Gore, Hillary Clinton and deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes. His report was the first to imply Mrs. Clinton was involved in the scandal.

Mr. LaBella's bombshell cites numerous actions taken by the Clintons, Mr. Gore and Mr. Ickes that represent "a pattern of conduct worthy of investigation" by a court-appointed prosecutor.

He singled out the Clintons' connections with a long line of shady Asian-American fund-raisers and other foreign nationals that "suggests a level of knowledge within the White House including the president's and first lady's offices concerning the injection of foreign funds into the re-election effort."

But among all of Mr. LaBella's findings of fact, none was more politically explosive than the questions he raised about the inconsistencies in Mr. Gore's evasive answers to investigators when they asked whether Mr. Gore knew the money he was raising in the White House included hard money, which would be a federal crime.

Mr. LaBella concluded there was significant evidence to suggest Mr. Gore "may have provided false testimony" about his White House fund-raising efforts in 1995 and 1996.

Mr. Gore insists no hard money was ever raised and that he had no firsthand knowledge that some of the unlimited soft money found its way into the Clinton-Gore campaign.

However, investigators uncovered memos and notes that indicate White House officials, including Mr. Gore, discussed raising hard money in the White House Map Room in November 1995. This, despite the fact Mr. Gore told investigators he did not recall reading any documents about the hard-money scheme or discussing it at the meeting.

But Mr. LaBella produced documents showing that former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta told FBI investigators he distinctly recalls the vice president "attentively listening" to a presentation about raising hard money and that Mr. Gore actively participated in the discussion.

Mr. LaBella's report is only the tip of the Clinton-Gore fund-raising iceberg that is now slowly coming into full view.

There is the recent discovery of thousands of e-mail messages in the White House computer system that have long been under subpoena by a grand jury and three congressional committees. A hired White House computer expert has told the U.S. District Court that some of these e-mail messages deal with Mr. Gore's "involvement in campaign fund-raising controversies."

These messages must contain some explosive stuff, because she said she was told "that if I or any of my team who knew about the e-mail problem told anyone else about it, we would lose our jobs, be arrested and put in jail."

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, warning that he knows "the names of the people who can be hung," has ordered the White House to produce the e-mail.

In an attempt to inoculate himself from all this, Mr. Gore finally admitted last week he realizes now he "made a mistake" when he visited a Buddhist temple to raise campaign funds in violation of federal law. For years, he insisted it was not a fund-raiser, even though e-mail and other documents confirmed that he knew money was raised there.

His plea last week that campaign-finance reform be enacted now was the political equivalent of saying "Stop me before I commit another crime."

Was there obstruction of justice at the highest levels? When the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles began to investigate Mr. Gore's Buddhist temple fund-raiser in 1996, he was ordered to stop by Lee Radek, the chief of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, because Mr. Radek argued it might compromise a future independent-counsel inquiry. Later, Mr. Radek argued that no independent counsel was needed, urging Miss Reno to turn down Mr. LaBella's request.

This serial dishonesty is the reason why Mr. LaBella does not believe Mr. Gore's story that he did not know hard money was being raised in the White House in violation of federal law. And the reason why only an independent prosecutor can be trusted to uncover the truth.

This is an issue of honesty, integrity and trust. George W. Bush and his allies will be hammering at it in the coming presidential campaign. They can start by demanding that the full LaBella report be made public now.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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