New criminal investigations of Al Gore's fund-raising and his campaign chairman are increasing legal problems for the Vice President's White House bid at a time when he is
vulnerable on ethical questions.
Likely Republican nomineed George W. Bush snapped up the opportunity to argue that probes of Tony Coelho and missing White House e-mail messages make the best argument for a switch in leadership.
"The best way to make sure we get rid of all these investigations is to change administrations," Bush said Friday in Little Rock, Ark.
Democrats fired back warning shots.
"When you set yourself up as a holier-than-thou politician, it doesn't take a very big pinprick to deflate you," said Democratic consultant Dane Strother.
"If George Bush is going to throw stones, he better make certain he's in no way in a glass house."
But the pair of developments could add to Gore's vulnerability among voters on ethical matters.
"It will resonate with previous scandals of the Clinton administration that they want to hear less about," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
Coelho is under a joint criminal investigation by the Justice Department's public integrity section and the State Department inspector general, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Coelho's lawyer, Stanley Brand, said the former California congressman is being investigated for financial transactions he made as head of the U.S. exhibition at the Expo 98 world's fair in Portugal.
With a $300,000 personal loan, Coelho built a Portuguese-American memorial wall sculpture and formed the Luso-American Wave Foundation to help repay the costs. A State Department inspector general's report said taxpayers could be responsible for any unpaid bills and cited mismanagement of the pavilion by Coelho and his staff.
At a Macomb, Mich., middle school Friday, Gore spoke in support of his campaign chairman, but that's all.
"Tony Coelho is doing a terrific job day after day. He will continue to do a terrific job," he said.
Coelho associates said he had no immediate plans to leave the campaign. In 1989, Coelho, then the House Democratic whip, quit Congress amid questions about his personal financial dealings.
In a case even closer to Gore, court papers this week made public the Justice Department's criminal inquiry into White House computer breakdowns that made it impossible to search thousands of incoming e-mails in response to law enforcement and congressional subpoenas.
This investigation, by Justice's campaign fund-raising task force, will focus on the missing 1996-99 e-mails and allegations that White House officials threatened contract employees with retaliation if they revealed the problem, the court papers said.
Recent polls suggest that ethics issues could be a problem for Gore in the presidential race.
In the latest Pew poll, more thn half the respondents said that if they were told Gore took part in unethical fund-raising practices during the 1996 presidential campaign they would be less likely to vote for him. Four in 10 said that if they were told Gore was part of a scandal-ridden Clinton administration they would be less likely to support him.
"If some voters felt that by electing Gore they would be perpetuating continuing investigations and continuing questions about ethics and whether wrongdoing occurred, they would probably vote for Bush," said Kohut, the poll director.
The vice president inherits questions about the Clinton-Gore campaign's fund-raising in 1996. A federal jury's recent conviction of Gore friend Maria Hsia for arranging more than $100,000 in illegal donations during that campaign resurrected the issue - including the vice president's attendance at a political fund-raiser in a Buddhist temple.
But Bush is not free of fund-raising questions, either. The Texas Governor, who has raised a record $73 million, stumbled over news during the primaries that his supporters Sam and Charles Wyly spent $2 million - under the name Republicans for Clean Air - for attack ads against Republican rival John McCain.
Still, recent polls show better than half of the respondents consider both Bush and Gore honest and trustworthy.
© 2000 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.