The Prosecutor Problem

IT WAS BEGINNING TO LOOK AS IF AL Gore would take all the heat. When Attorney General Janet Reno announced earlier this month that her staff was investigating the vice president's questionable campaign fund raising, Gore braced himself for the worst. Months of stories about his White House fund-raising calls and the Buddhist Temple fiasco had already tarnished his Mr. Clean image and sent his usually high public-opinion numbers tumbling. Last week he hired two prominent defense lawyers to help contain the damage. Meanwhile, it seemed Bill Clinton--who's never been more popular--would walk away from the scandal largely unscathed.

He may not get off so easy. Last week Reno opened a 30-day ""initial inquiry'' into whether Clinton himself violated federal campaign laws--the first step toward appointing an independent counsel who would review whether the president made illegal fund-raising calls from the White House. Justice officials are already weighing whether a special prosecutor should look into Gore; NEWSWEEK has learned that they were locked in an intense debate about whether to include Clinton in that probe. Embarrassed by charges that they have bungled the investigation to date, most members of Reno's senior staff were in favor of broadening the review; a few others insisted that the evidence was thin and the alleged offense too picayune. Reno disagreed, and Justice lawyers will focus their attention on a handful of calls and an obscure, almost never enforced law that forbids government employees from soliciting campaign funds from federal offices.

During the '96 campaign Clinton, like Gore, was given ""call sheets'' prepared by staffers requesting he personally woo prominent would-be donors. Justice lawyers believe that there is evidence that on at least several occasions Clinton did pick up the White House phone. In 1995 lobbyist Vernon Jordan asked Clinton to call Robert Meyerhoff, a Maryland horse breeder. The president made the call, and Jordan maintains that it was intended as a ""thank you'' for money the businessman had already pledged. But a White House staffer's notes state that Jordan specifically asked the president to phone Meyerhoff and ""clinch'' a $100,000 donation. The contribution arrived at the DNC soon thereafter.

Each of the call sheets in question specifically instructs Clinton to dial for dollars. ""Ask Danny for $100K,'' says the sheet referring to Slim Fast president Daniel Abraham. Ask rock star Frank Zappa's widow to contribute $100,000 for the DNC Media Fund, says another. Another asks Clinton to call fellow Arkansan Alice Walton. ""Ask her to contribute $100,000 . . . She wants to be certain that her contribution goes directly to support your campaign efforts.'' That remark makes it more difficult for administration lawyers to argue, as they have in the past, that the Clinton and Gore calls were requests for unregulated ""soft'' money, not funds to be used directly in their campaign.

So far, the White House is sticking to its well-worn line. ""The president can't specifically remember making any phone calls, but he may have,'' says spokesman Lanny Davis. No one disputes that Clinton saw the requests; a cover memo indicates he had specifically asked for them. On at least two of the sheets, there is a backward check mark--an unmistakable sign that the left-handed Clinton has read a document.

The sheets will increase the pressure for an independent counsel. That may be the only way Washington will ever get to heart of the matter: last week Senate Republicans abandoned their probe for now. Chairman Fred Thompson said the panel is just taking a breather, but privately staffers say the abrupt end came because the hearings were a dud with the public and the next round of witnesses was likely to embarrass Republicans--including some on the committee.

The hearings closed just when things were starting to get interesting. Sheila Heslin, a former National Security Council staffer, stunned the senators last week with her story of how top administration and Democratic Party officials pressured her to approve a White House meeting between Clinton and Roger Tamraz, a millionaire businessman, who had been flagged by U.S. intelligence as ""shady.'' Among those pressuring her, Heslin said, was Jack Carter, an Energy Department official, who argued that Tamraz was worth ""a lot of money'' to the election effort and said Heslin shouldn't be ""such a Girl Scout.'' Carter denies pressuring Heslin. Such charges haven't hurt the president so far. But that could change as the attorney general turns her attention to where, and when, the president picked up the phone.