NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON - Attorney General Janet Reno advanced a significant step closer yesterday toward deciding whether to ask for an independent prosecutor to investigate Vice President Albert A. Gore Jr.'s role in fund raising for the 1996 campaign, government officials said.
Reno ordered a 90-day preliminary inquiry into whether Gore lied to investigators last year when he was initially interviewed about his telephone solicitations to donors from the White House, the officials said.
The investigation into Gore's fund-raising calls was reopened after the White House produced a 1995 memo last month that suggested Gore and other Democratic campaign officials discussed how the money he solicited would be used.
In addition, investigators in recent days have interviewed several of the meeting's participants, who have indicated that Gore could have known that some of his fund raising would be funneled into direct re-election efforts - which could be illegal, the officials said.
If Reno determines at the end of the three-month investigation that there is evidence that Gore misled investigators, she will be obligated under the independent counsel law to refer the case to an outside prosecutor.
Gore's lawyer said yesterday that Gore had done nothing wrong.
"The vice president volunteered to be interviewed, and he has been interviewed twice," said the lawyer, James Neal. "I am totally satisfied that Vice President Gore has fully, completely and honestly answered every question asked of him."
Reno has reached this stage before in deliberating whether to seek an independent prosecutor to examine Gore's fund raising. Some officials doubted that her decision yesterday indicated that she would ultimately seek an independent prosecutor into campaign finance abuses - suggesting that the evidence against Gore is insubstantial. Others said that Reno was unpredictable on such issues and could go forward with the appointment.
For more than 18 months, Reno has refused to request that an independent counsel look into campaign finance irregularities in the face of angry Republican denunciations that she has covered up for the White House and has shielded President Clinton and Gore from possible prosecution.
Reno's decision yesterday was in a formal notification to the three-member panel of appellate judges who select independent counsels. But the Justice Department did not announce its action yesterday, awaiting an...