A Gore scandal guide for dummies

From the Buddhist nuns to the "iced tea defense"

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The biggest challenge for Vice President Al Gore this campaign season will not be stepping out of Bill Clinton’s shadow, but shedding the image of scandal that surrounds the Clinton-Gore administration. Those efforts were hampered again this week, when Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., revealed that top officials within the Justice Department are urging Attorney General Janet Reno again to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the possibility that Gore misled DOJ officials about his fundraising activities in 1996.

Now, the investigation would not be about the fundraising, only about the possible coverup of his fundraising. Gore released the entire transcript of his April Q-and-A session with investigators Friday, which included a denial about the infamous Buddhist temple fundraiser in 1996.

“I sure as hell don’t recall having — I sure as hell did not have any conversations with anyone saying this is a fundraising event,” Gore testified.

Gore was confident that the transcript would ultimately exonerate him. “I think the truth is my friend in this,” Gore told reporters Friday. “I have full confidence in the judgment of the American people … I want people to judge for themselves.”

In the meantime, all eyes are on Janet Reno. Congress allowed the independent counsel law to expire last year, leaving the decision to appoint squarely in Reno’s lap. So once again, in the closing months of her tenure, it falls to the attorney general to make a key decision that could affect the political career of people in the White House who appointed her.

But who can keep track of all these scandals? From the Buddhist temple to Johnny Huang to Charlie Trie and “no controlling legal authority,” the last four years are a tangled mess of alleged wrongdoings that hover over this administration. What follows below is a guideline to the scandals that have most directly affected Gore over the last four years, a Gore scandal guide for dummies:

April 1996 Gore attends an event at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles that nets the Democratic National Committee close to $65,000 from donors. In September 1997, a trio of Buddhist nuns from the temple admit in Senate testimony that the temple illegally reimbursed guests for their donations. Gore later denies knowing the gathering at the temple was a fundraiser, describing the event as “community outreach.”

March 1997 Gore is criticized for making fundraising calls from his White House office, and passing the bill on to taxpayers. Gore said he was advised before making the White House calls that there was nothing wrong with making the calls and that there was “no controlling legal authority” governing his actions.

September 1997 DOJ announces inquiry into fundraising practices of the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign, including charges that Gore aides illegally diverted soft money into the Clinton-Gore reelection effort and that Gore made illegal fundraising calls from the White House. This time, the focus on Gore’s phone calls centers on the fact that money raised from his office went into hard-money accounts, which would be illegal, as opposed to soft-money contributions to the DNC.

November 1997 Gore is interviewed by FBI investigators about a 1995 fundraising meeting at the White House.

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December 1997 Reno declines to name an independent counsel to investigate whether Gore knew he was raising hard money while making the calls from the White House.

June 1998 Gore meets with the FBI again.

July 1998 Charles LaBella, the outgoing chief prosecutor of the Justice Department’s campaign finance task force, delivers a report to Reno urging her to appoint an independent counsel.

August 1998 Gore again meets with FBI investigators about the 1995 fundraising meeting. When presented with documents that appear to contradict his earlier assertion that he was not a part of any fundraising discussions at that meeting, Gore offers what comes to be known as the “iced tea defense”: “The Vice President also observed that he drank a lot of iced tea during the meetings, which could have necessitated a restroom break,” which would have caused him to miss the discussions about fundraising, according to the FBI report.

Meanwhile, FBI director Louis Freeh warns Reno that she faces an “irrevocable political conflict of interest” in investigating the administration’s fundraising improprieties, and urges the attorney general to appoint an independent counsel. Two weeks later Reno reopens her inquiry into possible campaign finance law violations by the vice president to look into evidence that some Gore aides knowingly and illegally planned to divert Democratic Party donations — soft money — to the Clinton-Gore reelection effort.

November 1998 Reno says she would not seek a special prosecutor to investigate Gore on charges he deliberately misled FBI investigators when questioned about possible campaign finance abuses during the 1996 campaign.

“I notified this Court of the initiation of a preliminary investigation of Vice President of the United States Albert Gore, Jr. The preliminary investigation has now been concluded, and I have determined that there are no reasonable grounds to believe that further investigation is warranted of the matters that were under investigation. Therefore, appointment of an independent counsel is not being sought,” Reno wrote in a statement

March 2000 Maria Hsia, a prodigious Democratic fundraiser and associate of the vice president, is convicted of illegally funneling more than $100,000 in contributions to Democratic candidates in 1996.

April 2000 Agents from the FBI and Department of Justice grill Gore for four hours on the issue of fundraising, focusing on the notorious Buddhist temple fundraiser.

May 2000 Documents subpoenaed by the Senate reveal a memo by Freeh suggesting that Reno’s decision not to name an independent counsel was motivated in part by pressure from the White House.

June 2000 Specter, head of the Senate’s Justice Department task force, announces that Robert Conrad, the head of the Justice Department’s campaign finance task force is urging Reno to appoint an independent counsel to determine whether Al Gore told the truth when investigators questioned him about his 1996 fundraising.

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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