- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2000

The chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary committees yesterday demanded that Attorney General Janet Reno hand over all campaign finance task force records, including a previously undisclosed FBI memo recommending an independent counsel probe of Vice President Al Gore.

In a strongly worded five-page letter, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, called for the documents to be surrendered over the next 10 days or for Miss Reno to explain in writing her "legal basis and authority" for refusing to hand over the records.

Among the records being sought are separate memos by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and former campaign task force chief Charles G. LaBella that the committees have sought since 1998 and a later, undisclosed memo by Mr. Freeh concerning Mr. Gore.

"There is strong evidence to suggest that Director Freeh wrote a second memo to the attorney general recommending an independent counsel be sought to investigate whether Mr. Gore made false statements concerning his campaign finance activities," said one high-ranking Capitol Hill source.

In November 1997, Mr. Freeh recommended that an independent counsel be sought, saying in a memo to Miss Reno the task force probe had led FBI agents "to the highest levels of the White House."

The memo said Miss Reno was obligated under the mandatory and discretionary sections of the Independent Counsel Statute to seek outside counsel in the case.

A second Freeh memo, according to Capitol Hill sources, also recommended that an independent counsel be sought to probe accusations that Mr. Gore made false statements to FBI agents about his role in fund-raising calls he made from the White House during the 1996 election and about his knowledge of "hard" and "soft" money donations to the Democratic Party.

That memo, the sources said, was written in 1998 and only recently came to the attention of Senate and House investigators.

Also in 1998, Mr. LaBella urged Miss Reno to seek outside counsel to probe suspected campaign abuses by Mr. Gore, saying the vice president had engaged in "a pattern of conduct worthy of investigation."

Mr. LaBella, who was reassigned after his memo became public and has since left the Justice Department, accused department officials of "gamesmanship" and "contortions" in an effort to block an independent probe.

In December 1997, Miss Reno said she will not seek the appointment of outside counsel to investigate Mr. Gore, saying the decision was "based on the facts and the law, not pressure, politics or any other factor."

She said a Justice Department probe had shown that calls by Mr. Gore from his White House office were for legal soft money donations that may have illegally been diverted by the Democratic National Committee without Mr. Gore's knowledge to hard money accounts.

Miss Reno reopened the Gore investigation in August 1998 after FBI agents began to focus on contradictions between the vice president's public denials involving his campaign fund-raising efforts and handwritten notes on a White House memo discovered by Justice Department investigators.

The notes show that Mr. Gore was present at a White House meeting when campaign officials discussed how soft-money contributions he sought would be diverted directly to the Clinton-Gore re-election effort. The notes by David Strauss, Mr. Gore's former deputy chief of staff, described a 65 percent-35 percent split of soft and hard money for the DNC.

Soft money is unlimited and goes toward parties and issues rather than specific candidates, who receive more regulated "hard money." Using soft money for direct campaign activities is against the law.

In November 1998, Miss Reno again refused to seek the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Mr. Gore despite the new information.

She said there were "no reasonable grounds" to further pursue the case, adding that the notes were "not sufficient alone to warrant a conclusion that the vice president made a false statement" on how donations he raised would be allocated.

Miss Reno said that while interviews showed Mr. Gore was present when soft and hard money donations were discussed, no one recalled "any particular questions or comments by the vice president."

She said there was no evidence he heard the statements or understood their implications.

Mr. Gore has acknowledged making calls from his office to Democratic contributors but has denied breaking a 117-year-old federal statute regarding those calls. The 1883 federal law forbids government officials to solicit political donations from government offices.

The vice president also told FBI agents he never heard comments made during the White House meeting he attended on the illegal split of campaign donations to the Democratic Party, saying he was drinking "a lot of ice tea" and may have been in the bathroom.

The letter also was signed by Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, and Rep. Charles T. Canady, Florida Republican, both of whom head Senate and House subcommittees with Justice Department oversight responsibilities.

It said the documents being sought "no longer relate to ongoing criminal investigations," and that Miss Reno's failure to comply with the request could be interpreted as an attempt to "insulate your decisions" from further review.

"The House and Senate Judiciary committees believe that Congress needs to be fully informed regarding these matters, and that your repeated assurance, however sincere, that relevant decisions were made 'on the facts and the law' is simply not sufficient," the letter said.

"Ensuring that the laws are faithfully executed necessitates the review of decision making by Cabinet secretaries like yourself and other governmental officials. You should welcome such scrutiny and the ability to justify your decisions," it said.

Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin said the letter had been received and was being reviewed. He said, however, that the department had made an offer to allow the committees to review the Freeh and LaBella documents and "that offer still stands."

The letter from the congressmen also asked Miss Reno for memos from Lee J. Radek, head of the Justice Department's Office of Public Integrity, and other documents detailing the department's opposition to an independent counsel.

Mr. Radek ordered prosecutors just before the 1996 election to stop an investigation into suspected illegal fund raising by Mr. Gore at a California Buddhist temple. In a secret Nov. 1, 1996, cease-and-desist order, he instructed the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney's Office to "take no steps to investigate these matters at this time."

He also was criticized last year by four FBI task force agents who told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee he sought to impede the probe.

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