Campaign-finance questions distract Gore

New revelations revive issue of integrity in a campaign that may turn on character.

Since 1996, allegations of questionable fundraising have dogged Al Gore. Now they've surfaced once again, weighing down his campaign just as he is trying to revive it.

Whether these renewed charges will harm Mr. Gore's presidential bid will depend in part on the closeness of the race this fall, and more important, if Attorney General Janet Reno appoints a special counsel to investigate him - as a Justice Department prosecutor recently urged.

Still, most analysts agree that the prosecutor's recommendation is one more distraction for the vice president, and once again raises questions about his integrity in a campaign in which character is key.

It comes at a time when most polls show Gore trailing Republican rival George W. Bush. And it comes on the heels of several bad breaks for the vice president, including skyrocketing oil prices, a serious nuclear security lapse, and the resignation of his campaign director.

"This is bad for the vice president," says Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst here. "Anytime this is in the headlines, it elbows out other stories."

Indeed, the question of Gore's truthfulness was bandied about on television talk shows Sunday, and may continue to grab headlines when Ms. Reno testifies on Capitol Hill tomorrow. Senators will ask her why she has not appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the vice president, even though Robert Conrad, director of the task force investigating 1996 campaign-finance abuse, urged her recently to do so. This, after previous task force director Charles LaBella recommended the same thing in 1998, as well as FBI director Louis Freeh, in 1997.

Truthfulness an issue

Word of Mr. Conrad's recommendation leaked late last week, as did his concerns about Gore's truthfulness in an interview regarding the now infamous 1996 fundraiser at the Hsi Lai Temple in California. At this event, money was illegally given by "straw donors" who were later reimbursed. Some were foreigners who were ineligible to give.

Gore has always maintained that he did not know the event was a fundraiser, and he blamed partisan politics for this latest round of accusations (the news of Conrad's recommendation was first reported by Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania).

On Friday, the vice president released a transcript of his entire interview with Conrad, in which he attempts to justify how, on previous occasions, he referred to the Hsi Lai fundraiser as both a "community outreach" event and "finance related."

"If you are reaching out to a community that wants to be more involved in the political process, and one of the results of that outreach is going to be that they are going to be more likely to 'make contributions at a later time,' then it is both community outreach and finance related, and that's what I thought this event was," he said.

While Gore's presence at the temple would not have been illegal, lying about the event would be. Conrad - like others before him - says the only way to establish a credible investigation is to move it out of house.

No additional damage

Some say the revived campaign-finance questions won't damage the vice president any more than they already have. Those who dislike Gore already dislike him, the reasoning goes, while those who favor him have given their support despite the scandal that's been kicking around for four years now.

"I don't think anyone believes there are new revelations here," says independent pollster John Zogby, echoing the Gore camp. "I don't think it will be devastating at all."

The character question

Yet other public-opinion experts point out that if it's a close race, it could turn on the character question - and while Gore leads Bush on many issues, he's behind on personal ratings.

The return of the campaign-finance issue doesn't help those personal ratings, says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center here.

"It may not be fatal, it may not even be very harmful, but it certainly is a big risk," says Mr. Kohut. "The thing people least want to see is a continuation of questions about the president or vice president. If Gore's going to pull ahead, he's going to have to do it on a personal dimension."

Of course, the political risk could sharpen considerably if Reno follows the advice of Conrad and actually appoints a special counsel.

Given her past record of resistance, this doesn't seem likely, but the circumstances are slightly different now. With the independent counsel statute expired, she would have the power to appoint an outside prosecutor who would report to her instead of to a three-judge panel that's beyond her control.

Bad timing

Legal experts say a special counsel probably wouldn't be able to conclude an investigation before the election, leaving a resolution hanging.

The irony is that, had Reno appointed an independent counsel earlier, "it's distinctly possible that this matter could have had closure at this point," says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University here.

Mr. Turley points to some investigations of Hillary Clinton that are now concluding, which find that her actions, while questionable, were not illegal.

"Al Gore is not without a viable defense," says Turley, who doubts an investigation would ever result in formal charges.

But he, as well as others, see great damage in the fact that Reno has never handed this matter to an outsider, and has thus thrown into question the impartiality of a judgment. Certainly this is a point lawmakers will drive home when they see her this week.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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