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What Did Gore Know…

September 4, 1997 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Late yesterday, the Justice Department said it had launched a preliminary review of the Vice President’s solicitation of campaign contributions in telephone calls from his White House office. Here with more on this is Ron Ostrow, who covers the Justice Department for the Los Angeles Times. And, Ron, first explain to us, what is a preliminary review? What does that mean?

RON OSTROW, Los Angeles Times: Well, under the independent counsel law now the attorney general has 30 days to determine whether the allegations, the information is specific and from a credible course.

MARGARET WARNER: Enough to trigger the next step in perhaps seeking an independent counsel?

RON OSTROW: That’s right. The next step then is a full-blown 90 day investigation. When I say full-blown, it’s not a full-scale criminal investigation, but it’s a greater investigation, in which up to 90 days to determine whether there is sufficient cause to seek appointment of an independent counsel.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, explain what is it the Vice President did–this factual situation–that has given rise to this?

RON OSTROW: That’s given rise to the Justice Department’s 30-day inquiry.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

RON OSTROW: That is the raising of the calls he made from his office. He raised funds for the campaign. The question why the Justice Department is now looking into it is that the attorney general until yesterday –has been saying that requirements–independent counsel–requiring–seeking appointment of an independent counsel have not been met. You didn’t have a covered individual. It only covers the President, the Vice President, the cabinet officers, and some top officials. Now you do have a covered individual, the Vice President, and she was also drawing the distinction that–between soft and hard money. Hard money, of course, is that portion of that contribution that goes for an actual campaign, an actual candidate, a federal election race. Soft money is for party building, more general contribution, not for a specific race.

MARGARET WARNER: And just to explain this, when the story first came out about the Vice President had made phone calls from his office to raise money for the DNC, that was last March. The Vice President–both the Vice President and the Democratic National Committee saying all this was soft money.

RON OSTROW: That’s correct.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what happened this week to change that assessment?

RON OSTROW: Well, there was the news report based on–news reports based on Vice President Gore’s records that more than $100,000–I believe $120,000 of the money was–that he raised was placed into a hard money account, rather than soft money, thus, making it covered by the Federal Election Campaign Act and thus making it possible to have this 30-day inquiry.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Explain what does the law actually say about the legality of a Vice President sitting in his office and making telephone calls to raise money?

RON OSTROW: Well, on its face, when you read the law, it seems to apply to contributions sought or received in federal property.

MARGARET WARNER: It bars it, in other words?

RON OSTROW: It seems to bar that, right. But if you look over the history of the law and those–the Vice President would argue–there are no cases where the solicitations–interpreted that way–solicitations from a federal building to a location off of federal property, businessman’s office, a contributor’s home, where that would be covered. It’s meant originally, the law was enacted in the history of the legislation–so that you wouldn’t have federal employers shaking down federal employees in a federal structure for campaign purposes.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, you’re saying the Vice President is really saying that–whether it went to hard or soft money is immaterial as far as he’s concerned–making these phone calls, as long as he wasn’t shaking down federal employees but calling business people outside, that there was nothing illegal about this.

RON OSTROW: That’s the thrust of the argument. There’s some dispute of whether the law is restricted to that point. And that will be–I don’t know whether that will be settled in the 30 day preliminary inquiry here which just began determining whether it’s specific and whether it’s from a credible source. That would, I would think, would be more likely to be taken up in a 90-day full-blown–

MARGARET WARNER: You mean, you don’t think that the attorney general has to make a determination, herself, on that particular point, does the law apply or doesn’t it?

RON OSTROW: Not in the 30 day, at least not according to the wording of the independent counsel statute.

MARGARET WARNER: And how long could this whole process take before a decision is made whether to trigger a request for an independent counsel?

RON OSTROW: Well, if it goes beyond–determines that it is specific and it is credible, then you go into the 90-day period. Whether they need the full 90 days–and in many cases in the past they seem to have–you can even get an extension on that. But there are limitations in that 90-day investigation. You don’t get to use a grand jury. You don’t get to use other tools and a panoply–

MARGARET WARNER: So it could go on quite a while is what you’re saying?

RON OSTROW: It could go to 90 days.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you very much. Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Now to Senators Specter and Torricelli. Same question, gentlemen. Sen. Torricelli, how serious does this phone call matter sound to you?

SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI, (D) New Jersey: Well, actually, when I heard yesterday, that there’s going to be a preliminary inquiry, I assumed that the attorney general would probably name an independent counsel. Now I’m not so sure for many of the same reasons that Mr. Ostrow outlined.

First is the question of the Vice President’s intent, which is always a part of whether a criminal act has been committed. Clearly, it was his belief and his intention to be raising non-federal money. It was simply reallocated to the Democratic National Committee, not to his knowledge.

Second, the statute, itself, it’s 100 years old. It was intended to protect against federal employees being solicited on federal property. That did not happen here. It was a telephone call, paid for by the Democratic National Committee, so there was no use of federal funding, to non-federal employees to solicit their contributions. So while I certainly do not endorse it as a means of public policy, indeed, I suspect neither the President or Vice President, on reflection, would themselves defend it on a public policy basis. It appears to be the necessary violation of a federal statute by a covered person from the perspective of the Justice Department. It probably did not happen. Therefore, my guess is a preliminary inquiry does not lead to an independent counsel.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Specter.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, (R) Pennsylvania: My sense is that the Justice Department would not have taken the initial step unless they had pretty well decided to go all the way. What really happened here is a distinction which Attorney General Reno had made, which I did not think was well founded at the outset, that she had concluded that if someone had money paid over, which was soft money, it was not a political contribution, but if it was hard money, then it was a political contribution. And I think that distinction was not sound. Then when the evidence came to light, that Vice President Gore had received money which turned out to be hard money, she was left without the theory which had led her to deny independent counsel.

So it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But I think it had been building up in a context, in a much broader way, beyond these telephone calls. And I think that that was just the occasion where she really had to take this step.

JIM LEHRER: And you think she should do it, right?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I think she should. And the best authority is Attorney General Reno, herself. And when she appeared at the Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, she was very emphatic about the need for independent counsel if some ranking federal official was involved in the enumerated clash, and even beyond the reality, the appearance. So I think that she had held off beyond the point of no return.

JIM LEHRER: Is your committee going to look at this issue, or are you going to leave it to the Justice Department?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I think that the Judiciary Committee may have something more to say about independent counsel and may have some revision in the statute.

JIM LEHRER: But, I mean, at this particular–whether Vice President Gore violated any laws–any phone calls–are you going to have hearings on this?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, my sense is that we probably will, but that depends upon how we proceed on many other matters–and we have a time limit. So it’s impossible to say with certainty.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Senator, that’s an open question now?

SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: Well, it wouldn’t surprise me if we didn’t do hearings. This entire affair today has been the first pre-primary process of the year 2000 presidential race. But I think it would be a mistake.

JIM LEHRER: Meaning that Vice President Gore is probably going to run for President in the year 2000?

SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: The focus today–and there are so many campaign abuses clearly on both sides. You had to choose from them in scheduling this hearing today. The fact that one was chosen about Vice President Gore I think is no coincidence. I hope, however, the matter is left to the attorney general. I have enormous confidence in her. She never hesitated in naming independent counsels and dealing with fellow members of the Clinton cabinet. She named one dealing with the President, himself, in Whitewater She seemed to have made a judgment. This question will be made on the law, and I hope it stays that way.

JIM LEHRER: All right, gentlemen, thank you both very much.