GOP still after Gore on fund-raising legalities

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 4/29/2000

ASHINGTON - Exactly four years after Vice President Al Gore made his infamous fund-raising trip to a Buddhist temple, many remaining threads of the campaign finance investigation are being woven together by Republicans who still believe the issue is potent enough to help defeat Gore this fall.

Next Tuesday, for example, a little-noticed Senate subcommittee is slated to hold a potentially explosive hearing. Charles LaBella, the former head of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force, may for the first time fully reveal a July 1998 memo in which he argued that Gore's fund-raising activities should be investigated by an independent counsel. LaBella's recommendation was rejected by Attorney General Janet Reno, who has sought to keep the memo secret.

In a potential nightmare scenario for Gore, the Senate Judiciary subcommittee is also considering a request for Gore to answer questions about his fund-raising activities, said the chairman, Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania.

''I would not be reluctant to seek to ask him questions,'' Specter said. ''We had a famous case called US v. Nixon. You can compel the president to answer questions. In America, with appropriate cause, anybody can be asked questions.''

The subcommittee is exploring what Specter called ''new information'' that Gore knew he was attending a fund-raiser at Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif. Gore initially said he thought he was attending a community outreach event, but later said he knew it was finance-related. Specter said Secret Service logs and other information clearly labeled the event as a fund-raiser.

The subcommittee is also examining whether the White House intentionally withheld thousands of e-mails to Gore's office while he was with a prior fund-raising investigation.

The Gore campaign dismisses the latest inquiries on Capitol Hill as predictable partisanship. ''These issues have been examined ad nauseam by various congressional committees at a cost of over $50 million to the taxpayer, and none of it found any wrongdoing on the part of Al Gore,'' said campaign spokesman Doug Hattaway.

Still, the campaign is responding cautiously to the matter, partly because the vice president was interviewed privately by federal investigators about some fund-raising matters earlier this month. Gore aides said the vice president was assured he was not the target of an investigation, but the interview demonstrated that Republicans are not the only ones still asking questions.

All of this has provided fodder for the Republican presidential campaign of Texas Governor George W. Bush.

Today, Bush plans to note the temple fund-raising anniversary during an appearance at the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts in New York City. If the Bush campaign has its way, one of the most familiar images of Campaign 2000 would be of Gore at the temple, where Buddhist monks have taken a vow of poverty.

The strategy is modeled after the way Bush's father, President George Bush, ran television ads that mocked his Democratic rival, Michael Dukakis, for riding in a tank.

''The Buddhist temple thing is a great picture,'' said Ron Kaufman, the former political director of the Bush White House and a friend of Governor Bush. ''Not only does it point out past problems for Gore on the issue of campaign finance, but it shows how hypocritical he is.''

The investigation into Gore's fund-raising is a continuation of a probe that began in 1997 with hearings by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Republicans on the panel wrote a report that said Gore may have broken the law and urged Reno to appoint an independent counsel to investigate his fund-raising from the White House.

The central question is whether Gore had given instructions that ''hard money'' contributions he had solicited for the Democratic Party be directed to the Clinton-Gore campaign. While it would be legal for Gore to raise unlimited ''soft money'' contributions for the Democratic National Committee at the White House, it would have been illegal for Gore to raise limited ''hard money'' from his office.

Gore, in a comment that has drawn much ridicule, had said there was ''no controlling legal authority'' to prevent him from raising soft money at the White House. But that left open the question of whether Gore raised hard money there.

Reno decided against appointing an independent counsel after concluding that Gore did not participate in conversations about using hard money for the Clinton-Gore campaign. But after that decision was made, a memo turned up from Gore's deputy chief of staff that described how the money raised by Gore would be split between hard and soft money.

Gore told federal agents he doesn't recall that conversation, possibly because he had been drinking a lot of iced tea and may have been in the bathroom - a comment that has produced guffaws from some GOP members.

Officials recently discovered that a batch of e-mails sent to Gore when the matter was under investigation by Reno are missing. Some Republicans suspect the e-mails were withheld by the White House, although there has been no public evidence to confirm that. Gore has said he doesn't think he sent e-mails about fund-raising, but he isn't sure.

The Bush campaign hopes that damaging information about Gore's fund-raising practices will be revealed in the coming months, perhaps in the late stages of the campaign. Many Bush aides remember how President Bush's reelection campaign was hurt in October 1992 by revelations about his discussion of the Iran-Contra matter at the White House when he was vice president.

Democrats hope to defuse the issue by backing campaign-finance measures put forward by Gore or Senator John McCain of Arizona, while criticizing Bush for failing to abide by voluntary campaign limits.

''Bush has no credibility whatsoever on the campaign finance issue,'' said