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Attorney General Janet Reno Announces No Special Prosecutor to be Appointed in Gore Fund-Raising Probe

Aired August 23, 2000 - 9:30 a.m. ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We are keeping an eye, expecting any moment now an announcement from Attorney General Janet Reno about the campaign finance investigation. A source, though, is telling CNN that Reno has decided not to name a special prosecutor to look into Al Gore's 1996 fund-raising activities. Questions center around Gore's visit to a Buddhist temple where illegal contributions were raised. Gore maintains he did not know the event was a fund-raiser.

Joining us now to talk about the decision and the fund-raising controversy is CNN legal analyst Greta Van Susteren in our Washington bureau this morning.

Greta, good morning.


KAGAN: First, help us understand what are the actual allegations of what the vice president supposedly did wrong?

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, you know, that's sort of the curious thing. It all started from essentially two incidents. One was a fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple, which you have characterized as illegal. And the other inquiry was into White House coffees where donors to the Democratic Party were entertained at the White House, and the question is whether that was improper or not.

This investigation is going on for a number of years. And while it is done in secret, some of it has leaked out and the vice president has been under oath five times in connection with this. And where we are right now is that one of the lawyers at the Justice Department who interviewed the vice president under oath in April was not particularly satisfied with his answers, and he was interested in pursuing the matter further.

There are other prosecutors at the Justice Department, though, who had a different view and they thought that the matter should end. And what we're expecting to hear today is the decision of the attorney general of the United States, Janet Reno, who has the ultimate say on this, as to whether or not a special prosecutor will indeed be appointed.

We're expecting that she'll say no to this, that it was one single Justice Department prosecutor who would like to go forward, but the other prosecutors at the Justice Department thought this inquiry should be put to bed. And, of course, Janet Reno now has to weigh all the facts and has to decide whether the investigation should go forward.

KAGAN: So, Greta, would it be a matter that the vice president took part in an illegal fund-raiser or that he might have lied, allegedly, under oath to say that he didn't think it was a fund- raiser?

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, it's not enough to take part in an illegal fund-raiser. You actually have to do something else. You have to take a step further to have any sort of criminal involvement. You have to have knowledge and participate in it having that knowledge. So it isn't particularly that, but you are actually correct that what this -- this investigation has sort of, like, meandered...

KAGAN: Greta, we're going to have you stand by here because I see the attorney general having a seat in the media briefing room. So we'll just have you stand by. We'll listen to the attorney general and bring you back afterwards.

JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Over the past four years, the Campaign Finance Task Force has been vigorously investigating allegations of wrongdoing in the 1996 election cycle.

I'm pleased with the progress the task force has made, and I respect all of those who have contributed to the success.

Robert Conrad, the current head of the task force, is one person who deserves a good deal of credit for the success. He is an excellent prosecutor. I meet with him on a regular basis, and I am impressed with his judgment, his management of the task force, and his knowledge of the law. He is an excellent prosecutor.

There will always be disagreement among lawyers. 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. But I can tell you my regard for Bob Conrad has only increased as I have dealt with him on this issue.

Like those before him, Bob believes that internal deliberations among prosecutors should not become public. There are two basic reasons for this.

First, we should encourage candid, vigorous internal discussion as we determine how to proceed in any matter. Participants should feel free to disagree. Release of internal recommendations threaten such a candid discussion.

Secondly, such a release of internal preliminary recommendations in a pending matter is not fair to those involved, and it undermines the fairness and the credibility of our entire criminal justice system.

For example, today Bob Conrad has been tagged with being the only person in the Justice Department who thought I should appoint a special counsel. Although I'm not going to get into who recommended what, I can tell you that that is not correct.

Earlier someone released the fact that Bob had recommended that I appoint a special counsel to further investigate the falsity of certain statements the vice president made in an interview conducted by Mr. Conrad last April, about the Hsi Lai Temple event, and coffees held by the vice president and the president as part of the 1996 campaign.

The recommendation did not involve the legality of those events themselves.

I've carefully reviewed the transcript of the vice president's interview, as well as related documents and materials. The special counsel regulations provide for the appointment of a special counsel when the attorney general determines that criminal investigation of a person or matter is warranted, that that investigation would present a conflict for the Department of Justice, or other extraordinary circumstances, and it would be in the public interest to appoint a special counsel.

Because further investigation is not likely to result in a prosecutable case under applicable criminal law and principles of federal prosecution, I have concluded that a special counsel is not warranted.

The transcript reflects neither false statements nor perjury, each of which requires proof of a willfully false statement about a material matter. Rather, the transcript reflects disagreements about labels.

I've concluded that there is no reasonable possibility that further investigation could develop evidence that would support the filing of charges for making a willful false statement.

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

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, how important in your decision was the materiality aspect, the fact that none of these events that were discussed were themselves illegal?

RENO: We have considered that, but, basically, I came to the conclusion, as I have indicated, that no further investigation could produce facts that would permit, under our principles of federal prosecution, the filing of charges.

QUESTION: Why is that? Can you help us understand that a little better? In other words, because why?

RENO: Just to give you an example, for -- the vice president makes the statement in the transcript that has been released that he may have attended one coffee. And then he says, "I don't know what the record reflects." He immediately turns to the record. At the conclusion of the interview, he asked his counsel to check the record and to clarify the record, and he produces that information as to the number of coffees he attended or he hosted, as best the record can reflect. That I don't think would support in any way a charge of false statement based on a statement that he may have attended one. There are other issues with respect to what the question means.

The vice president took the question to mean just coffees in the White House hosted by the president; Mr. Conrad intended it to cover coffees that might have been hosted or attended by the vice president. That was clarified.

There is some indication, "Why didn't he indicate that at first?" but if you look at the transcript carefully, the vice president says: Those coffees were on the other side of the house, in the White House, that was the president's coffees. I hosted the coffees in the Old Executive Office Building.

And so the number of coffees referred to will depend on the question, and fundamental ambiguities in the question, and how it's understood by the person answering the question, make a perjury charge or false statement charge impossible to prove.

QUESTION: Miss Reno, does this mean that the task force will no longer consider any questions surrounding the Hsi Lai Temple event?

RENO: What I have tried to make clear is that this -- first of all, Mr. Conrad's recommendation did not go to the underlying events. It went just to the statements, and the task force is free to pursue the issues.

QUESTION: The task force can pursue any questions that it thinks appropriate about that temple event?

RENO: That's correct.

QUESTION: Will Mr. Conrad continue to head up the task force?

RENO: Yes, he will.

QUESTION: Has he accepted your decision?

RENO; I don't discuss conversations I have with lawyers, so that they can feel free to talk to me. But as I indicated, based on my conversations with him about this issue, I have an even greater regard for him.

QUESTION: Will he have any difficulty, though, in pursuing the investigation? Will he feel that he has any conflict between what he believes should be done and what you have now told him will not be done?

RENO: He would have to make any comment that he wanted to make with regard to that.

QUESTION: Has he expressed any qualms about that to you?

RENO: I have indicated that he should make any comment. QUESTION: Ms. Reno, as sure as we're sitting here, you're going to be accused of making a political decision. They're going to say that your chief of the task force and you both looked at a set of facts and law and came up with entirely different conclusions. How do you counter those accusations that this is a political decision made in the heat of a presidential campaign?

RENO: Same way I've done it before. I don't do things based on politics. I realize that politics will be hurled around my head. I just sit there and duck as it comes, and continue to look at the evidence and the law and make the best judgment I can after consultation with as many people as possible who have relevant information.

QUESTION: Has this process been fair to the vice president, or anybody else in a similar situation? Should this have been public to begin with?

RENO: Well, as I indicated to you earlier -- what do you mean -- should what have been public?

QUESTION: Your deliberations as to whether to appoint a special counsel...

RENO: I don't think the deliberations should be made public. That's the whole point I was making here. But if you think -- if you think my decision should have been made earlier, I try to make decisions based on what's right and make them as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, most of the paperwork on your earlier decision processes in the campaign finance matter, whenever questions arose about then-independent counsels, have now been made public. Will you make public any of this paperwork, including Mr. Conrad's original recommendation and any of the responses from other justice people?

RENO: I don't know think, for the reasons I indicated, that that should be made public. These internal deliberations should be just that. And people should have confidence that their thoughts and disagreements are not spread out across the world until final decisions are made.

QUESTION: But in the last few years, you have essentially caved on that belief, when Congress has demanded the earlier documentation.

RENO: I would hope that Congress would see the wisdom of what I am trying to do, understand the risk that are taken when Congress intervenes in a pending matter, so that we can proceed with the campaign task force investigation in a thorough way.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) concerning the Hsi Lai Temple and how you came down on that?

RENO: The concern was that the vice president called it a fund- raiser and made references to it being finance related. The vice president defined, and he defined early on, his definition of fund- raiser as an event at which money was raised there. But then he went on, both with respect to the coffees and with respect to the temple, to describe the role that the coffees and the temple event played in raising money for the campaign, because, if you read the transcript carefully, it refers to the fact that calls, events and coffees would be important.

He is asked, "What is the role of these events in the raising of the $108 million for the campaign?"

And he describes that role. There's no if's, and's or but's about it. He describes the role that it's to build relationships, develop an understanding, answer questions, hear people's ideas, and build a relationship so later you might go out and ask for a contribution.

It's the labels where they disagree. And I reached the conclusion that the vice president had not, based on this record, failed to describe what the role in fund-raising was.

QUESTION: How can you assure the American people that these decisions that you make, given the fact that he is the person supposedly most intimately involved with the details, that your conclusions are more accurate -- stronger than his?

RENO: More accurate than...

QUESTION: Or that you're right and that he's wrong?

RENO: I have taken each one of the statements and gone through it to see whether you could develop evidence sufficient to prove it beyond and to the exclusion of a reasonable doubt by further investigation, and have concluded that you can't.

QUESTION: That is the opposite of Peter's question. Could you argue that this was never even a close call, given that the underlying conduct here, the temple fund-raiser, or the temple event, and the coffees were not themselves illegal?

RENO: I don't want to get into anything with relationship to the underlying events because that relates to the continuing investigation. But in all of these factors, we have considered whether you could, with further investigation -- because everybody agrees now that based on the state of the record, you could not file charges now under any circumstances, but if you could develop evidence sufficient to prosecute.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, one of the most troubling aspects of what's been reported of the vice president's statements is his contention that he did not know that some of the money he raised in phone calls from his office was going into hard money accounts, that he thought it was all going to soft money. How was that issue resolved?

RENO: Well, we go back to that and, again, I don't want to comment on the underlying events. I just refer you to previous statements filed.

QUESTION: But there was an indication that the vice president was present in at least one meeting in which this money was divvied up this way, at least part of the money raised in these calls was going to hard money accounts.

RENO: I would refer you to the filings with regard to that matter, but I don't want to discuss further any of the underlying events.

QUESTION: Because this is a continuing investigation?

RENO: That's correct.

QUESTION: How many of your advisers agreed with Mr. Conrad, that an independent counsel might or should be brought in?

RENO: I can think of two.


QUESTION: What's your thinking about the timing of this announcement? Did it occur to you that it might have more or less impact if you made this announcement prior to the convention rather than after the convention?

RENO: I wanted to make it as soon as possible. I did not want to interrupt or interfere with or influence, in any way, either convention.

QUESTION: Does that mean that you consciously held off on a final decision until after the convention, or that you made the decision earlier but just held off announcing it?

RENO: No, I struggled over this, and I want to be as fair as I can. When do I reach the decision? You are constantly keeping your ears open.

You wake up one morning and you think: Let me check this, let me check that.

I just want to be as thorough as I possibly can, and make sure that I have heard from everybody and consider everything and try to do it the right way.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, how much -- what will the politics be, in terms of whether or not you would actually appoint the special counsel, and the difficulties of setting up an office in the middle of a presidential election?

RENO: What role did politics play?

QUESTION: Well, yes. In other words, did you factor into account the -- well, just the difficulties of setting up a new investigative unit to look into these issues as the campaign is going on, in the closing days of...

RENO: No. What I did was ask that threshold question that the regulations require: Was investigation, a criminal investigation, warranted? And in this instance, the question was: Was further investigation warranted?

I concluded that it was not, because I did not think that there was a reasonable possibility that further investigation would produce evidence sufficient to charge.

QUESTION: You say you struggled over that decision. Can you tell us how exactly you prepared two earlier White House fund-raising reviews, in terms of complexity of the issues, difficulty...

RENO: One was an apple, one was an orange and one was a pear.

QUESTION: When did you reach your decision? Yesterday?

RENO: Sometime over the weekend.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you reached the conclusion that further investigation was not warranted because it was not likely to lead to charges. But your critics over the last four years have maintained that there needs to be someone outside of the department, someone not you, not any of your top advisers, who makes that fundamental threshold decision whether further investigation could lead to charges.

RENO: I think we're under principles of federal prosecution because, remember, under the special counsel regulations I appoint. And I do not see how, under the criminal law and under the principles of federal prosecution, these statements could be determined to be either false statements or perjury.

To then appoint a special counsel would, I think, be inconsistent with the regulations. But I think it would be, first of all, unfair to put people through an investigation. And secondly, I don't think that, since the special counsel is in effect my appointee, that I can justify and support the decision they made.

This goes to the heart of everything we care about in this country: that 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 principles that governor our conduct, think that you can find the evidence that would justify further action.

KAGAN: We've been listening to Attorney General Janet Reno from the Justice Department making an announcement that she has reviewed the material and she says she will not name a special counsel to look into Al Gore and his fund-raising activities during the 1996 election cycle. She says she's looked at the documents and she's carefully reviewed the vice president's statements and she believes that further investigation will not lead to charges being filed and prosecution.

Let's bring back in our legal analyst, Greta Van Susteren, in Washington as well.

Greta, the attorney general saying she doesn't think it's going to -- it would lead to prosecution or charges, but she's not saying the vice president didn't do anything wrong. VAN SUSTEREN: No, but her job is to determine whether a further investigation is warranted. And you very correctly stated there, in the process, she first has to meet the threshold that she thinks further investigation is likely too lead to charges against the vice president. She's reviewed all the information and, in her opinion, the answer is no.

What she was focusing on was an April 18 interview with the vice president under oath, and she was attempting to see whether or not there was evidence of false statements, which is a violation of the law, or perjury.

In her opinion, having reviewed that, there may have been disagreements about labels, but statements the vice president made under oath would not lead to a criminal investigation and criminal charges because any sort of disagreement about the facts -- she characterized them as not being willful and not being material.

The law has specific elements. If they are not material, if they are not willful, then under no circumstances can someone be charged, and it is her judgment, and she's required by law, to stop the investigation there.

KAGAN: Greta, not one but three prosecutors underneath Janet Reno have suggested that a special counsel should be appointed. She did talk about the disagreement and the discourse that takes place among lawyers at the Justice Department, and used as an analogy the Supreme Court, saying often they disagree 5-4. Is that a good analogy?

VAN SUSTEREN: Actually, I was quite surprised by that analogy. I thought it was a quite smart analogy because the United States Supreme Court, in about 20 percent of its opinions just this term, was in disagreement 5-4. Lawyers oftentimes do disagree. People disagree. I mean, husbands and wives can disagree about what particular house to buy. I mean, people disagree all the time. But, ultimately, the buck must stop someplace.

And what we have decided in our country is the buck stops at the attorney general of the United States. She has the ultimate authority and she has to review all the facts and exercise her judgment. And in exercising her judgment, what she did say is that she consulted other lawyers in the Justice Department, and she also considered the three who were in disagreement with her ultimate opinion today.

So, you know, someone has to exercise judgment. She has exercised her judgment, and, in fact, she had high praise for one of the Justice Department lawyers, the one who's head of the task force who actually disagreed with her. But it's her decision and the buck stops with her and she's decided that the investigation should not go on further. She did not see any willfulness and she did not see any material misstatements.

KAGAN: Greta Van Susteren in Washington. Greta, thanks for joining us this morning.



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