Reno Decides Against Special Prosecutor

Attorney General Janet Reno has decided against naming a special prosecutor to investigate Vice President Al Gore’s 1996 campaign fund-raising.

Rejecting advice from the chief of the Justice Department’s campaign finance task force, Reno declared today that “no criminal investigation is warranted” with regard to Gore’s fund-raising.

“Because further investigation is not likely to result in a prosecutable case,” Reno told reporters this morning, “I have concluded that a special counsel is not warranted.”

Robert Conrad Jr., the supervising attorney heading up the department’s probe, recommended to the attorney general in June that a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate whether or not the vice president made false statements under oath. Conrad concluded that Gore was less than truthful in an April 18 interview on his role in allegedly improper campaign finance practices. Reno announced today that she did not reach the same conclusion.

“I’ve carefully reviewed the transcripts of the vice president’s interview,” she said. “The transcript reflects neither false statements, nor perjury, each of which requires proof of a willfully false statement about a material matter.”

The Gore presidential campaign was understandably delighted at the decision. “It’s good news,” said spokesman Douglas Hattaway. “We’re pleased the matter has been fully resolved. Al Gore is focused on the future.”

But his Republican opponent, George W. Bush, said the entire episode was just another reminder that the White House needs to be aired out.

“The American people are sick and tired of all these scandals and investigations. The best way to put all these scandals and investigations behind us is to elect someone new,” Bush said in a prepared statement, e-mailed to reporters while he spent a day off the trail in Austin, Texas. “I’m running to uphold the honor and dignity of the White House.”

Haunted by Buddhist Temple Event

The vice president’s involvement in the 1996 Democratic campaign finance scandals has haunted Gore as he seeks the White House. His videotaped appearance at a now-infamous event at a Buddhist temple outside of Los Angeles was widely criticized. But Gore has steadfastly insisted that he did not believe money was raised at the controversial event and continues to deny any wrongdoing.

In June, saying “the truth is my friend,” Gore released the full 123-page transcript of his interview with Justice Department investigators, in an effort to prove that he did not lie during the four-hour session. “I sure as hell did not have any conversations with anyone saying ‘This is a fund-raising event,’” the vice president told Conrad in the April interview.

Reno explained that Gore maintained that no money was raised at the temple or at dozens of White House “coffee klatches” hosted by him and President Clinton, but conceded the events were aimed at building relationships with potential donors in the hopes that they would contribute money in the future.

“The concern was that the vice president called it a ‘fund-raiser’ and made references to it being ‘finance-related,’” Reno said this morning. “I reached the conclusion that he vice president had not, based on this record, failed to describe what the role [of the events] in fund-raising was.”

Reno ‘Couldn’t Get Past Threshold’

Reno said the threshold for appointing a special counsel had not been met. The law directs the attorney general to name a special prosecutor in cases where criminal investigation is warranted, when prosecution by the Justice Department would present a conflict of interest, and when it is in the public interest for a prosecutor outside the department to assume responsibility for the matter.

“I couldn’t get past that threshold,” she said.

“This goes to the heart of everything that we care about in this country,” Reno insisted. “You don’t pursue a case where there is no basis for concluding that you can make a case. You don’t put people through an investigation where you don’t, based on the law and the principles that govern our conduct, think you can find the evidence that would justify further action.”

The attorney general said she made her final decision over the weekend and vehemently denied being influenced by politics, even as she finds herself in the center of a political firestorm. Reno has repeatedly been called on the carpet to testify on Capitol Hill about her decisions in this and other matters. And many Republican lawmakers have called for her resignation.

“I don’t do things based on politics,” she said firmly. “I realize that politics will be hurled around my head. I just sit there and duck if it comes and continue to look at the evidence and the law and make the best judgment I can.”

Reno said the decision was a difficult one. “There were mornings I woke up and said ‘Maybe I should appoint a special counsel,’” she admitted.

In her remarks today, the attorney general also lashed out at media leaks on the matter, criticizing the release of Conrad’s internal recommendation that a special prosecutor be appointed.

“Such a release … is not fair to those involved,” she said, “and it undermines the fairness and credibility of our entire criminal justice system.”

The attorney general also downplayed her disagreement with Conrad, whom she called “an excellent prosecutor.”

“There will always be disagreement among lawyers,” she explained. “The Supreme Court often splits five to four. The arguments around this table where I have my staff meetings are vigorous and that’s the way I want it.”

Conrad will remain in charge of the Justice Department’s continuing campaign finance probe.

“The task force will, of course, continue its ongoing investigation into illegal fund-raising activity,” Reno said, “and will be free to pursue all avenues of the investigation wherever they may lead.”