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Justice Dept. Says Tactics for Fund Raising Appear Legal

By Roberto Suro
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Controversial campaign fund-raising practices at the White House, including the receipt of a $50,000 donation by Hillary Rodham Clinton's top aide, did not appear to violate federal election law, senior Justice Department officials said Thursday in unusual public statements.

Virtually all unregulated "soft money" contributions to political parties are exempt from the prohibition on campaign fund raising in federal offices and buildings, according to an interpretation of the law offered by Attorney General Janet Reno and her chief spokesman.

The statements narrowed the possibility that Reno will recommend an independent counsel to investigate Democratic fund-raising activities, according to election law experts.

"I think this is expanding the loophole of soft money to gigantic proportions," said Kent Cooper, a longtime official of the Federal Election Commission who now heads the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

"There is a big difference between what is illegal and what some people may view as improper, and that has been an important reason why the attorney general has not sought an independent counsel," said Kenneth Gross, another former FEC official.

In addition to the receipt of funds by Margaret A. Williams, the first lady's chief of staff, the Justice Department statements also apparently applied to Vice President Al Gore's telephone solicitation of campaign funds from his White House office and a number of other Clinton campaign activities that have come to light in recent days. The disclosures concerning Gore and Williams have prompted renewed calls by Republicans on Capitol Hill for the appointment of an independent counsel.

Reno has steadfastly resisted those demands while a special task force of Justice Department lawyers and FBI agents investigates a wide range of allegations involving fund-raising activities during the 1996 campaign.

Justice Department officials have emphasized that a key element of the task force review is an evaluation of seldom-used statutes to determine whether crimes may have been committed. Thursday, senior Justice Department and FBI officials met to discuss the issues. Separately, at her weekly meeting with reporters, Reno for the first time offered a glimpse of her thinking on soft money contributions.

Responding to a question about whether Williams's receipt of a contribution at the White House might require investigation by an independent counsel, Reno warned that "it's very important that, as you make these allegations and as you portray them in television or on headlines, that you try to clarify just what the issues are."

Reno then called attention to the strict definition of "contribution" in the statutes prohibiting the use of federal offices and buildings for political fund raising.

Expanding on Reno's comments, Bert Brandenburg, chief spokesman for the Justice Department said, "it is the established practice of the career prosecutors in the criminal division that the definition of contribution' does not include most soft money."

Soft money is broadly taken to mean contributions to a political party's national committee or some other group other than a campaign. The funds can then be used for state and local elections, generic political activities such as voter registration or administrative activities. As long as the money is not used to support candidates in federal races, it is exempt from several provisions of campaign laws.

The laws cited by Reno state that it is illegal to use federal property "to solicit or receive" any funds contributed "for the purpose of influencing any election for federal office."

Critics of Clinton campaign practices contend that the shield of soft money was used to protect a massive fund-raising effort aimed at re-electing the president and that the Justice Department needs to probe deeper to determine whether the Clinton re-election campaign directed the solicitation and spending of these funds.

The money received by Williams came from Johnny Chung, a California businessman who maintained close ties to the Clinton administration and who was visiting the White House in March 1995 seeking access to the broadcast of Clinton's weekly radio address for himself and several associates. The money was returned out of concern over its origins.

While they do not believe Williams necessarily violated the law, some White House officials privately acknowledged that their legalistic defense was semantic at best.

Under the White House interpretation advanced publicly, neither Williams nor any other administration official could technically "receive" campaign contributions because they are not officers of a political party or campaign. Therefore, the law prohibits something that, by this argument, cannot even occur.