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Reno: To Probe Or Not To Probe

Attorney General Janet Reno must make one of the most important decisions of her career on Monday, reports CBS News Correspondent Stephanie Lambidakis.

The decision that stands before Reno is whether to appoint an independent counsel to investigate President Clinton's involvement in campaign ads during the last election.

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It was the summer of 1996 and President Clinton was riding high on a hugely successful media blitz.

Democratic party ads such as "President Clinton is on your side...", touted Bill Clinton and excoriated Bob Dole. Election watchers immediately cried foul. The rules say the parties can spend unlimited funds of so-called soft money, money contributed to the parties, on advertising.. But the ads must promote issues, not the candidates.

"I tell ya what, these ads walk like a duck, talk like a duck, These are candidate ads," says Common Cause President Ann McBride.

The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has been pushing Attorney General Reno to appoint a special counsel.

"The President directed the ads. He helped to formulate the ads. He helped to determine the process by which the ads were used. He knew it was soft money." says Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch.

In fact, on one of the infamous tapes of a White House coffee meeting, the president is heard boasting to potential contributors how he could circumvent the spending limit.

"And then we realized we could run these ads through the Democratic party," he is overheard saying.

The President claims he merely took the advice of lawyers who told him his actions were legal. That means Reno may find no criminal intent on the part of the president.

But some are worried about the fallout.

"If she doesn't make clear that the law was violated, the 2000 election is gonna have corruption and scandal and abuse that will make 1996 look like child's play," says McBride.

Reno could ask for more time to decide, but top aides say they believe she will make up her mind and close the case.

If that happens, the Republicans last best hope for an independent counsel in campaign finance may be slipping away for good.

Reported by Stephanie Lambidakis