- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2000

The head of the Justice Department's campaign-finance task force recommended earlier this year that a special prosecutor be named to investigate Vice President Al Gore on suspected fund-raising abuses during the 1996 presidential campaign.
According to Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee investigating the Justice Department's handling of the campaign-finance probe, task force chief Robert J. Conrad Jr. made the recommendation to Attorney General Janet Reno.
Miss Reno rejected similar calls by Mr. Conrad's predecessor, Charles G. LaBella, and by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, both of whom said in separate memos there was sufficient evidence to warrant the appointment of an independent counsel in the case.
"I have reason to believe that Mr. Conrad has recommended a special counsel to investigate Vice President Gore," Mr. Specter said yesterday, adding that subcommittee investigators had uncovered "very substantial evidence" showing the Justice Department did not act on the recommendation.
"I think the attorney general has done a grave disservice to Vice President Gore in failing to act on the investigation in 1997, when Director Freeh recommended it, or in 1998, when LaBella recommended it," he said. "The matter is now coming to a head again in the middle of a presidential campaign."
White House spokesman James Kennedy said administration officials had received "no word from the Department of Justice about the reported campaign-finance development," adding that Mr. Gore had "cooperated fully with the investigation every step of the way."
Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin said the task force probe is continuing and it would be "inappropriate to comment on ongoing matters or internal deliberations."
Campaigning in Minnesota, Mr. Gore told reporters he was not aware of any recommendation for a special prosecutor. "You're privy to news I don't have," he said.
The Independent Counsel Statute lapsed in June 1999, although Miss Reno could name a special prosecutor answerable to her to investigate the vice president.
The issue of an outside counsel first was raised at a hearing Wednesday before Mr. Specter's subcommittee, during which the chairman asked Mr. Conrad whether he "made or attempted to make a recommendation" on a special counsel to investigate Mr. Gore.
Mr. Conrad declined to answer, saying he did not "feel comfortable discussing … something that pertains to an ongoing investigation."
The task force chief, along with four FBI agents, interviewed Mr. Gore for four hours in April in connection with suspected fund-raising abuses during the 1996 election.
The White House later confirmed the interview, saying Mr. Gore's personal attorneys attended the session and the vice president "cooperated fully with the task force and voluntarily agreed to be interviewed." It offered no further comment on what questions were asked or what task force investigators wanted to know.
Mr. Gore, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, declined to discuss the interview.
The task force was formed in 1997 to investigate accusations that illegal foreign and domestic donations were made during the 1996 campaign. It also is probing missing White House e-mails, including those involving Mr. Gore when he and Democratic Party figures were the focus of inquiries by the task force and congressional committees.
Task force investigators have questioned several Gore contributors, including organizers of an April 1996 fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif. Mr. Gore has offered several explanations about the event and why he was present, including a claim he later changed, saying he did not know it was a fund-raiser.
In November 1997, Mr. Freeh first recommended an outside counsel be sought in the task force probe, telling Miss Reno the inquiry had led FBI agents "to the highest levels of the White House." He said Miss Reno was obligated under the mandatory and discretionary sections of the Independent Counsel Statute to seek an independent counsel.
A second Freeh memo in 1998 also recommended an outside counsel be sought to probe accusations that Mr. Gore made false statements to FBI agents on his role in fund-raising calls he made from the White House in 1996 and on his knowledge of "hard" and "soft" money donations to the Democratic Party.
In 1998, Mr. LaBella also urged the appointment of an outside counsel, saying Mr. Gore and others engaged in "a pattern of conduct worthy of investigation." He questioned Mr. Gore's veracity in denying knowing that soft and hard money donations had illegally been sought by the Democratic National Committee.
On two occasions, following preliminary Justice Department inquiries, Miss Reno declined to seek an outside counsel, saying there was insuf-ficient evidence to justify the inquiries. She reopened the Gore probe in August 1998 after FBI agents focused on contradictions between Mr. Gore's public denials of his campaign fund-raising efforts and handwritten notes on a White House memo discovered by investigators.
The notes show Mr. Gore was present at a White House meeting when campaign officials discussed how soft money he sought would be diverted to the re-election cam-paign. The notes by David Strauss, Mr. Gore's former deputy chief of staff, described a 65 percent to 35 percent split of soft and hard money for the DNC.
Soft-money donations to parties for issue ads and party-building activities are unlimited. Their "hard" use to help elect a specific candidate is illegal.
In November 1998, Miss Reno again refused to seek outside counsel despite the new information. She said there were "no reasonable grounds" to pursue the case, adding 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.
She said while interviews showed Mr. Gore was present when soft- and hard-money donations were discussed, there was no evidence he heard the statements or understood their implications.

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