White House Not in Clear Yet

Reno may pass on counsel for Clinton and Gore, but other investigations loom.

For Attorney General Janet Reno, the cacophony of criticism may be deafening by day's end. But it may not last long.

Ms. Reno is expected to decide today against naming a special prosecutor to investigate the legality of fund-raising calls from the White House.

Reno's own Justice Department task force has recommended that she not trigger a further probe - to the great dismay of those who say President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore broke the law.

The news would be welcomed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in an administration that has already seen six special prosecutors appointed during Mr. Clinton's first term. Three are still active.

Analysts agree that, despite the short-term tornado the decision could create for Reno, there will likely be little long-term fallout for her or the administration.

Mr. Clinton's "possible violations are class D in the overall scheme of things," says Ted Van Dyk, a long-time Democratic adviser who says Reno should trigger the independent-counsel statute. "But this could inflame things," causing others leading related investigations to ratchet up their efforts.

However, the administration's political and legal fortunes still rest on the outcome of four other investigations stemming from Democratic fund raising practices.

* Reno must also decide by tomorrow if an independent counsel probe of former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary is warranted. She faces allegations of illegally seeking a $25,000 dollar contribution from Johnny Chung, a Democratic fund-raiser, in exchange for her agreeing to meet with Chinese businessmen.

* Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt also faces a possible investigation to determine if campaign contributions and political pressure from the White House influenced his decision to deny casino applications to three Indian tribes.

* Two fund-raisers reportedly could be indicted by year's end: Yah Lin Trie and Maria Hsia are being investigated in connection with efforts to funnel foreign contributions to the Democratic Party.

Any or all of these cases could bring investigators closer to the White House.

And while Senate hearings led by Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee closed prematurely due to lack of findings, in the House, Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana will reconvene his investigation into Democratic fund-raising practices in January with renewed purpose.

Until then, Reno is expected to bear the brunt of GOP ire. "If she doesn't [call for a special prosecutor] she should resign," says Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee. "It is a clear reflection of the conflict of interest she has with the White House."

Reno's critics will be hard pressed to actually force her to step aside with the law, and public sentiment behind her. "She has a right to do this under the law," says Stephen Hess, a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

FOR the past three months, legal scholars have debated whether Clinton and Mr. Gore violated the statute in question, which was intended to prevent politicians from shaking down in-house underlings for contributions.

Clinton and Gore were questioned last month about their use of White House phones to contact donors. Gore admitted making more than 40 calls. Clinton says he doesn't recall making any such calls.

"She has established a lot of groundwork on this, discussing how difficult it would be to prosecute," says Craig Crawford, editor of the newsletter The Hotline.

But Reno has proven she has no qualms about triggering the statute. In the first term, "when she looked around the table at Cabinet meetings, it seemed she had half of them under investigation," says Mr. Hess. In addition to two Whitewater counsels, Reno has named prosecutors to investigate former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, and late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.

Still many in Washington believe, in this case at least, that people are tired of listening to unproved charges of wrongdoing.

The perception that the story is being kept alive by partisan accusations insulates the administration from political damage. "There is a real public wariness," says Mr. Crawford, "of this pattern of stories that either get disproved or are too complicated to understand," he says.

Even Mr. Nicholson says the president is likely to emerge unscathed. "I just couldn't predict this will have a long-term political impact on Clinton," he says.

Perhaps most at stake for the administration is the amount of damage to Gore's once squeaky-clean image. "He is held hostage to Bill Clinton," observes Hess who points out any new damaging revelations would hurt Gore the most.

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