FBI pulled its punches in fund-raising probe, GOP charges

By Larry Margasak, Associated Press, 12/17/99

ASHINGTON - Justice Department officials never asked Vice President Al Gore about a questionable Buddhist temple fund-raiser or President Clinton about Democratic money man John Huang, according to FBI summaries of the interviews released yesterday.

Just weeks before the first presidential primaries, House Republicans used the disclosures to question if Justice officials intentionally ignored key questions in their interviews with the president and vice president.

''Did they forget? Did they think it wasn't important? Did someone tell them not to?'' asked Dan Burton, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. The Indiana Republican posed his questions at a hearing where Huang was the key witness.

Attorney General Janet Reno replied in writing to Burton's questions. She said her department's investigation ''has been conducted in an orderly manner, and interviews have been conducted so as to focus on the matters then under review.''

According to the FBI summaries, Clinton told Justice investigators he didn't recall making any fund-raising calls from his official office; Gore said he believed such calls from his office were ''completely legal and proper.''

Neither the president nor Gore was asked any questions about Huang or James Riady, both key figures in the fund-raising scandal, according to the memos.

Clinton was interviewed twice and Gore three times by criminal investigators in 1997 and 1998 as part of the department's campaign fund-raising investigation.

FBI notes of those sessions were released as the fund-raising issue surfaced in the presidential primary campaigns.

In New Hampshire, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, reminded voters that Gore had said there was ''no controlling legal authority'' that forbade his widely criticized fund-raising activities during the 1996 presidential campaign.

Burton complained that investigators never asked Gore ''a single question'' about the fund-raising event at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple, a tax-exempt religious institution that is barred by law from political activities.

''I have acknowledged my mistake in attending'' the temple fund-raiser, Gore said yesterday in Nashville.

In his second day of testimony before Burton's committee, Huang said he raised nearly $1 million in illegal contributions for the Democratic Party.

The FBI notes of Clinton's interview said: ''The president has no specific recollection of placing fund-raising telephone calls from any place in the White House other than his study. Although he sometimes places telephone calls in his private office off of the Oval Office, he has never placed fund-raising calls from there.''

Federal law prohibits conducting political activities from an official US workplace, but the White House, which is also the president's home, also has unofficial areas where such calls can be properly made. Also, there are exceptions in the law.

From December 1995 through May 1996, Gore made 48 calls from his West Wing office using a campaign credit card, according to records given to Senate investigators by the Democratic National Committee in 1997.

In one of Gore's interviews, the FBI notes said, ''Vice President Gore stated it was from the Sunday talk shows that he first became aware that there may have been a problem if the calls were made from his office.''

Gore said ''it was his belief that making the calls from his office was completely legal and proper'' and that ''there were no legal issues associated with the fund-raising calls because of the intense vetting process that occurs in placing events on his schedule,'' according to the FBI summaries.

Reno declined in 1997 to name an independent counsel to investigate Clinton's and Gore's fund-raising calls. She said Clinton's calls were made from the White House private quarters, not the president's offices.

She wrote that the calls were outside the scope of federal election law, ''which applies only to solicitations for hard-money contributions occurring within the federal workplace.''