Gore's Coffee Stains

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Conrad, a self-described "aggressive" prosecutor, who four years ago gave $250 to G.O.P. stalwart Senator Jesse Helms, put his recommendation into a memo shortly after his session with Gore, law-enforcement sources tell TIME. It has been sent back to him several times by higher-ups, including, on at least one occasion, Reno, for clarification on various points. A meeting of Conrad and Reno with other department officials to discuss the memo finally took place June 16. But Conrad is still working on some issues, the sources said.

Most Justice officials don't believe Gore did anything illegal in 1996 during the campaign--only that he hasn't been forthcoming about it since--which means once more that the issue is a possible cover-up of marginal offenses at best, a pathetic crime by most standards. That leaves Reno, who has the sole authority to appoint a special, outside counsel now that the independent-counsel law has lapsed, in the latest of many tough places she's been in during her tenure. Reno watchers think she may hang tough. "There's no smoking gun, no new witness, no new evidence," said a top official at Justice.

But that would send Republicans on Capitol Hill through the roof--again. They've already been in nosebleed territory as memos have surfaced, even into this year, showing that in 1997 and 1998 several top aides recommended that Reno request an independent counsel on the question of Gore's fund-raising calls from the White House, and whether he lied about their nature. Gore might, for the first time, be wishing she had pulled the trigger then; at least it might be over by now.

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