A Very Close Call For Al

Charles Uribe, chairman of A.J. Construction Co. in New York, got an unusual phone message on Feb. 2, 1996. "The vice president is on the line," his secretary said. "Vice president of what?" Uribe barked. "The vice president of the United States," she said. Uribe immediately took the call, and other executives in the room listened curiously to their boss's end of the conversation, a string of "yes, sirs" and "no, sirs." When Uribe got off he explained. "We need to raise $50,000 for the campaign," he said, according to an account a colleague later gave the FBI.

It was business as usual for Gore. Dubbed "solicitor in chief" for his aggressive fund-raising, he placed 71 calls from his White House office. Legal questions about Gore's dialing for dollars led Attorney General Janet Reno to consider--twice--appointing an independent counsel to investigate. Both times she declined, drawing bitter criticism from Republicans and even some of her own senior prosecutors.

Just how close did Gore come to an investigation that might have hurt his presidential chances? Perilously close, it turns out. More than 100 pages of internal Justice Department memos, reviewed by NEWSWEEK, shed new light on a largely invisible but fierce intramural fight in 1998 that played out as the country was transfixed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The issue: did Gore lie to the FBI about the kind of political money he had been trying to raise? The record shows prosecutors infuriated by evasive and implausible answers from the vice president and other officials. "This is a classic white-collar [crime] scenario," wrote Justice attorney Judy Feigin.

Only a few months earlier it appeared that Gore was in the clear. The calls had been a political nightmare through most of 1997, when opponents charged that he had violated an old law barring solicitation of campaign money in a federal building. Reno cleared him late that year on a technical but legally crucial distinction: his claim that he had been raising unregulated "soft" money for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and not "hard" funds earmarked for the re-election campaign. But in July 1998, Gore's lawyers turned over newly discovered notes taken by former aide David Strauss at a 1995 White House meeting attended by Gore. The notes strongly suggested that part of the money Gore raised would be "hard." One notation read: "65% soft/35% hard." Charles LaBella, chief of Justice's campaign-finance task force, who, along with FBI director Louis Freeh, had wanted an independent counsel in 1997, pressed again.

The memo touched off a new flurry of investigation--and infighting. Bradley Marshall, a DNC official who attended the 1995 meeting, confirmed an earlier statement by former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta: that hard money had been discussed--with Gore listening. Gore told the FBI that he drank too much iced tea during the meeting and may have been in the bathroom. This was too much for Feigin, LaBella's deputy. "We now have Panetta, Marshall and the contemporaneous Strauss notes," she wrote in August 1998. "On the other side is a group of people who basically 'don't recall'." Feigin also suggested that a visit to the grand jury might "jog" failing memories. Others still vehemently opposed pursuing Gore. Lee Radek, chief of Justice's public-integrity section, charged that Panetta had changed his statement "three times."

But Feigin's memo briefly tipped the scales. James Robinson, chief of Justice's criminal division, reversed his position and recommended an expanded Gore probe, which continued until November 1998. By then, high-ranking Clinton appointee Robert Litt reluctantly supported an independent counsel. The internal dispute was as arcane as it was bitter: even Gore's antagonists conceded that the case against him was too weak to successfully prosecute. But the language of the law, they argued, left Reno no discretion. She disagreed. On Nov. 24 she dropped the case, stating that Strauss's notes did not prove that Gore lied to investigators. From the Gore camp there was a sigh of relief, for dodging what may have been a small legal bullet, but a potentially damaging political wound.