Strike <i>Four</i> For Gore

000623 earlyshow gore and buddhist
The campaign donations Al Gore collected at the California Buddhist temple back in 1996 are truly the gifts that keep on giving. The latest goodie - a fourth senior law enforcement official has recommended that Attorney General Janet Reno appoint an outside counsel to investigate Gore's role in 1996 campaign fundraising controversies. Count 'em: four.

The rest of us are escorted to the dugout after three strikes. Gore is still in the batter's box after four, swing away, arguing the calls.

To review: the first to advocate bringing in an independent counsel was Charles LaBella, a career prosecutor who headed a Justice Department special task force investigating the 1996 campaign. LaBella was handpicked for the job by Janet Reno, who went on to reject his recommendation. He quit.

Then FBI Director Louis Freeh wrote infamous memo calling for an outside prosecutor, noting that Reno faced "an irrevocable political conflict of interest" if she kept the investigation within the Clinton Justice Department. His counsel was not heeded.

Next came Robert Litt, a very senior Justice Department official and Reno aide who also urged her to appoint an independent counsel.

Now Robert Conrad, who is now running the department's Campaign 1996 task force, has weighed in supporting the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Gore's actions. Conrad's team recently spent four hours interviewing Gore. It isn't known whether his recommendation involves any new information or stems from the earlier inquisitions.

Sen. Arlen Spector, R-Pa., blew the whistle on Conrad's recommendation. And Specter, not a press-shy public official, will help ensure the controversy stays in the news when Reno appears before him a Senate committee hearing next week.

Reno On Gore
Attorney General Janet Reno said Friday she would not dribble out "piece by piece" information about whether a special counsel should investigate whether Vice President Al Gore's fund-raising activities in 1996.

"The worst thing you can do in an investigation is dribble it out piece by piece," Reno told reporters at her weekly news conference. "I don't want to present half facts. I don't want to present a piece here and a piece there that may not be corroborated. I want to do it the right way."

Reno was asked about the timing of the recommendation for a special prosecutor and whether it would affect the presidential race between Gore and Republican candidate George W. Bush.

"I want to make sure the investigation is done the right way, that it is done to seek justice ... so it is done fairly so it does not interfere with the democratic process," the attorney general said.

"I am going to do everything in my power to see that any decision that I make is made without politial influence from anyone." (AP)

Conrad's recommendation, described as "preliminary," will now work its way up the bureaucratic food chain at Justice, ensuring that Reno and her top aides will be asked about it repeatedly and endlessly until the matter is resolved.

It took the opposition research maestros less than two minutes to begin e-mailing stories about this latest edition of BuddhaGate to reporters who somehow may have missed it. Presumably, Governor Bush's ad men are outlining scripts already.

The re-emergence of Gore campaign money problems, of course, hurts. It will be very difficult for the Gore campaign to explain why four different law enforcement officials are on a partisan witch hunt and off base. The pictures of Gore and the monks will be played again and again. "Controlling legal authority" will be back in the vocabulary of the paid political chatterers.

But if Reno were to change her oft made mind and appoint a special counsel, it would be devastating to the Gore campaign. At this point, there is absolutely no reason to think Reno will alter her thinking and launch a special investigation. There is plenty of reason to think she won't change her mind. But it isn't known yet whether Conrad has come up with any new evidence or findings.

At a bare minimum, this flap will make it harder for Gore to regain the steam he hoped from his "Progress and Prosperity." On Thursday, the tour took him to Minnesota for an appearance with Governor Jesse Ventura. Even "The Body" can't protect The Veep from this political Half Nelson.

And just to really wreck Gore's day, two new national polls came out showing Bush leading by eight and 12 points. Adding insult to public opinion injury, the president of the Teamsters Union, James Hoffa Jr., appeared with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and hammered Gore on his trade policies.

But this latest legal problem of Gore's will not, like Hoffa the Elder, just disappear.