Clinton May Escape Campaign Probe

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Betting is heavy that Attorney General Janet Reno won't call for an independent counsel to investigate Bill Clinton's role in the Democratic Party's 1995-96 blitz of "issue advocacy" ads. Justice Department lawyers are having trouble defining a crime that might have occurred. Most similar election-law violations are handled as civil, not criminal, matters; whether or not a candidate can participate in his party's issue ads is an unsettled matter of law.

Special Report But the strongest argument that Clinton and the other Democrats could use to fend off another probe is that their lawyers were involved in every step of the $42 million ad campaign. The independent counsel law allows Reno to stand down if there is "clear and convincing evidence" that no wrongdoing was intended, and reliance on the advice of counsel goes a long way toward meeting that standard. Ironically, former Clinton adviser Dick Morris, whose descriptions of Clinton's helping to craft the ads got the President in hot water to begin with, could be the Democrats' best witness. According to Morris, Democratic National Committee general counsel Joe Sandler "changed every script. He put quotas on the number of seconds Clinton could appear. When Bob Dole left the Senate, we could no longer use his name." Sandler's advice, Morris told TIME, "was always followed."

A senior Justice official says Reno's decision will depend in part on what the Federal Election Commission does with its auditors' recommendations that the Clinton and Dole campaigns both repay the $13 million-plus they got in public funds for their primary campaigns. Meanwhile, the outcomes of Justice's other probes, on misstatements by Harold Ickes and Al Gore, are harder to predict.