Angry Republicans are exploring ways to pry the campaign finance investigation away from Attorney General Janet Reno, now that she has again refused to order an independent counsel probe of Vice President Al Gore.
"I am becoming more and more convinced we've just got to take this matter out of the hands of the attorney general, who appears to be acting politically," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "Personally, I think it is going to take legislation."
Reno advised a special court Tuesday that there is "clear and convincing" evidence Gore did not lie to campaign finance investigators last year about how a Democratic media fund was financed.
CBS News Correspondent Phil Jones reports that the attorney general agonized over this until the deadline, using just about every minute of the 90 days she had to make the decision.
In her decision, Reno said, "There is no reasonable grounds to believe that further investigation is warranted" into whether the vice president lied to federal investigators.
"Today's determination does not mean that our work has ended," Reno said in a statement. "We will continue to vigorously investigate all allegations of illegal activity."
"Once again, the attorney general has failed to follow the law," said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. "The attorney general has made it clear she is committed to protecting the president." Burton faulted her for rejecting the advice of FBI Director Louis J. Freeh to order an independent counsel, which Freeh has been advocating for a year.
Steve Forbes, a would-be Republican presidential candidate in 2000, said, "This raises the question of Ms. Reno's fitness to remain in office." Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., suggested asking a court to order Reno to turn the case over to a counsel.
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Reno must decide within two weeks whether independent counsels are needed to continue those probes.
Hatch was asked Tuesday if this is a coverup by Reno.
"I have never been willing to go that far, but I am very disturbed by it. A lot depends on the next two referrals. If she doesn't request the appointment of an independent counsel in each of the next two times, then I think a lot of people are going to chnge their minds," said Hatch.
"The vice president is pleased that this preliminary review has been concluded without the need for an independent counsel," said his spokesman, Christopher Lehane.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said President Clinton "believes the vice president has always acted within the letter and the spirit of the law and that the news of today indicates this."
Reno said handwritten notes by a Gore aide about a November 1995 meeting which Gore attended, "are not sufficient alone to warrant a conclusion that the vice president made a false statement" last year about his understanding of how contributions he raised by telephone calls from his office would be allocated.
Interviews with other participants demonstrated Gore was present and at some point the Democratic media fund and the allocation of contributions between so-called soft and hard money accounts was discussed, Reno said. "No attendees recall any particular questions or comments by the vice president," Reno wrote.
This "weak, circumstantial evidence" is not sufficient to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Gore knew as he made the telephone calls that the media fund had a hard money component, Reno concluded.
The Gore case revolves around whether he lied to investigators during last year's probe when he said he understood a Democratic Party media campaign fund, that paid for the issue ads, contained only so-called soft money.
This "soft money" was like that Gore thought he was raising in telephone calls from his office. Reno ruled last year that federal law bars only the solicitation from government offices of "hard money," which advocates election of specific candidates.
The Clinton case involves whether issue ads, which both parties use, crossed the line into advocating President Clinton's election. Arguing they did, a Federal Election Commission staff audit recommends requiring Mr. Clinton's re-election campaign to repay $13.4 million in federal matching funds.
The Ickes case has the greatest chance of prompting Reno to order what would be the seventh independent counsel of her tenure to look into a top Clinton administration figure, according to these Justice Department and law enforcement officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity
Reno has until Nov. 30 to decide whether enough evidence supports allegations Ickes lied to a Senate committee about administration assistance to the Teamsters union during a strike against Diamond Walnut Co.
President Clinton, Gore, and others were interviewed during the current 90-day inquiries by Justice officials. Mr. Clinton, Gore, and Ickes have all denied wrongdoing.
For two years, Republicans in Congress have pressed Reno to turn over the campaign finance investigation to an outside prosecutor. During that time, her task force of 120 prosecutors and investigators has charged 14 people, including prominent Democrtic donors and fund-raisers.
If the attorney general does decide next month to name a prosecutor to look into the president's 1996 campaign activities, it will be far reaching and could still involve the vice president.