June 23, 2000
A Justice Department prosecutor recommends an investigation into the 1996 fundraising activities of Vice President Al Gore. NewsHour political pundits Mark Shields and Paul Gigot provide analysis of what an investigation could mean to Gore's campaign for president.
HOLMAN: Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson and his Committee on Governmental
Affairs investigated charges of fund-raising abuses during the 1996 Presidential
campaign for most of the following year. But after 32 often partisan public
hearings, testimony from more than 70 witnesses and thousands of pages
of documents, there were few tangible results. Ultimately, a tired and
frustrated Thompson simply wanted to issue his final report and move on.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: We could revisit all of those old wounds and heartaches and throw more stones at each other today if we choose to do so. We've got time to do that if members feel compelled in that direction.
KWAME HOLMAN: At the time, none did. But now, four years after the facts, it's reported that an ongoing Justice Department investigation of the 1996 fund-raising practices particularly those of Vice President Gore, are about to meet the year 2000 Presidential campaign head-on.
MIKE KIRKLAND, UPI: Miss Reno, I imagine the Vice President is hopping mad this morning. In the middle of the Presidential campaign, a report comes out of the Justice Department that a top prosecutor is... has made the preliminary recommendation that you appoint a special counsel to investigate the Vice President's statements.
KWAME HOLMAN: The questions surrounding the Vice President concern the same fund-raising activities the Thompson committee and the Justice Department first began investigating more than three years ago. The now infamous event Vice President Gore attended at a Buddhist temple in California during which $100,000 illegal contributions were funded to the Democratic National Committee; the more than 100 coffees at which major contributors were welcomed to the White House by President Clinton and the Vice President; and the 45 telephones the Vice President made from the White House he said to solicit soft money contributions for the Democratic National Committee's general campaign fund. Such contributions would fall outside federal election laws.
AL GORE: My counsel advises me that there is no controlling legal authority or case that says there was any violation of law whatsoever in the manner in which I asked people to contribute to our reelection campaign.
KWAME HOLMAN: Months after that statement, it was revealed that some of the money Gore solicited went into hard money accounts for specific campaigns; a violation of federal law. Gore denied knowing he was soliciting those regulated funds. Vice President Gore has been questioned under oath five times since the campaign fund-raising investigations began, most recently at his residence northwest Washington on April 18. But reportedly as a result of that four-hour, often intense investigation, Robert Conrad, Jr., the head of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force, recommended that Attorney General Janet Reno appoint a special prosecutor to examine whether Gore's earlier statements on his fundraising activities were truthful.
|Prosecutor calls for special counsel investigation|
REPORTER: Can you say when the recommendation was made to you? Was it last week?
JANET RENO: I don't comment on any timing with respect to any details of an investigation.
KWAME HOLMAN: At her weekly press briefing this morning, Reno refused to give any indication of if or how an investigation of the Vice President was proceeding.
JANET RENO: The worst thing you can do in an investigation is dribble it out piece by piece, without presenting the whole and without completing the whole. And that's what I'm determined to do. I don't want to present half facts. I don't want to present a piece here and a piece there that may not be subsequently corroborated. I want to do it the right way.
KWAME HOLMAN: Throughout the long investigations, Reno steadfastly has refused to appoint or recommend a special counsel to investigate the '96 Gore reelection campaign, much to the constant disappointment of congressional Republicans.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Why hasn't the Attorney General Reno appointed an independent counsel to investigate these matters?
SPOKESMAN: I don't see how she has any other choice.
KWAME HOLMAN: But if current reports are true, Robert Conrad would join former task force head Charles Labella in calling for an investigation outside of the Justice Department.
SPOKESMAN: How important is it that now different people in that same position have come to the same conclusion about appointing an independent counsel?
JANET RENO: They have not come to the same conclusion, because first of all you can't comment... or I can't comment on the facts. And I can't really confirm for you that the two issues are the same.
KWAME HOLMAN: At issue also is the effect reports of an independent investigation would have on Al Gore's campaign for president.
JANET RENO: I think it requires, first of all, thoroughness in conducting an investigation, I think it requires that it will be done as fast as possible, consistent with thoroughness. And that's what we're going to try to do.
|The potential impact to the Gore campaign|
JIM LEHRER: And to some analysis of this by Shields and Gigot; syndicated columnist mark Shields, and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Mark, how would you answer the question about the potential impact this could have Al Gore's presidential campaign?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, for Al Gore, it's nothing but bad news. I mean if there is an independent counsel appointed at this point, there is no time to get an investigation in. And it just hangs over the campaign. At a time Jim when he wants to get the debate and his own sense of the future out, this brings us back to the past, and joins him to the administration and probably its sorriest episode.
JIM LEHRER: Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: He must feel like Al Pacino in Godfather III where he says, "Just when I get through, they drag me back in." He was trying to talk about prosperity and progress and identify with the successes of the Clinton administration this. This brings him back and identifies him with what voters don't like about the administration. He's already losing, by 12 points on trustworthiness to George W. Bush. That's according to this week's Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, the number one issue, personal quality the people are thinking about when they look for the President this year. This goes directly to that question and hurts him.
|A recurring probe into fundraising activities|
JIM LEHRER: Why does this thing keep coming up? The house investigated, the Senate investigated. There have been so many, it looks like investigations, now it won't go away; why not?
PAUL GIGOT: Arlen Specter, the Republican Senator who broke this story made a good point. He said Janet Reno didn't do Al Gore any favors by letting this get on. If you're not going to name an independent counsel, you have to investigate yourself. And she's done that but not very well. So the people she picked, Charles Labelle recommended independent counsel as did Louis Freeh, so she said no. So she had to name this fellow and now that he has looked at the evidence and he said recommended it. By dragging it on, she's put it herself right in the middle of the campaign.
JIM LEHRER: Why won't this go away, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: It won't go away because in 1997, both parties concluded that it was not in their interest to have an independent counsel. You saw in Kwame's piece Fred Thompson up there, the Senator from Tennessee, in my judgment played it straight. He was one of the few people on the committee who did. I think that Arlen Specter was right when he said that by not appointing an independent counsel in 1997, Janet Reno did Bill Clinton and Al Gore no favors.
JIM LEHRER: It would have been over by now.
MARK SHIELDS: It would be over by now. And it would have been an investigation, let's be blunt about this. It wasn't just Clinton-Gore. There was enough soft money on the other side starting with the Bob Dole campaign, not dollar for dollar, but certainly in sufficient amounts that it would have been an investigation that would have gone to both parties and included the Republican National Committee and it would have been far reaching investigation. But both parties saw it in their interest not to have it and I think Clinton folks thought they dodged a bullet and it keeps ricocheting and coming back.
PAUL GIGOT: The Republicans were calling for it. I mean you saw the Senators up there asking for it. I think they were willing to take it. If it was going to affect Haley Barbour or something, they were willing to swallow it. They wanted to make sure it got to the high levels of the White House.
MARK SHIELDS: You've seen posturing occasionally. I mean there's no question, neither side wanted an independent counsel, in my judgment. If they thought it would embarrass Bill Clinton, yes. But Trent Lott was not pushing behind the scenes and hoping that there would be an independent counsel.
|The attorney general's choices|
JIM LEHRER: Well, back now to the situation now. We saw Senator Nichols in Kwame's piece say, well, Janet Reno had no choice. That was the earlier time. Does she have any choice now?
PAUL GIGOT: Sure. Remember, there is no independent counsel statute anymore. That's gone. This is totally up to her, her discretion.
JIM LEHRER: A special counsel would work for her in the Justice Department?
PAUL GIGOT: In the Justice Department; it's at her discretion. But let's face it, now this isn't Dan Burton calling for this. This isn't Trent Lott. This is her hand-picked prosecutor heading up her own campaign finance area. So I mean this is the second one. The political cost rises if she says no.
JIM LEHRER: Can she say no?
MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I think she can say no. And I mean she can certainly say that there is not going to be any kind of a report between now and November. I mean I think just simple sense of fairness. I mean Al Gore should have been... there should have been an independent counsel, should have been a thorough investigation. But to appoint one now, in my judgment, just have this hanging over the next four months when there can be no resolution, would be an act of folly.
|Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.|