Gore's Coffee Stains

The campaign-finance brew comes back to trouble the Veep. Will a special counsel be far behind?

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Two days later, Gore lawyer James Neal sent Conrad a letter amending his answer: Gore's schedule reflects that he was scheduled to attend four White House coffees, Neal writes, and "the Vice President hosted approximately 21 coffees in the Old Executive Office Building. He did not understand your question to include OEOB coffees." (Congressional investigators say Gore held 23 coffees of his own and went to eight with Clinton.) Neal does not amend the record otherwise, though investigators have found--as Conrad pointed out to Gore--that donors gave a total of $7.7 million within a month of their attendance at a coffee. And the notion that Gore knew of no connection between the coffees and the dollars is almost impossible to believe. In talking points prepared for Gore by former top aides Ron Klain and David Strauss for a meeting Gore says he never attended, Gore is advised to argue that he and Clinton could raise the huge sums of money that would be required to put an early ad campaign on the air by doing things like sipping java with folks with big wallets: "So we can raise the money--BUT ONLY if the President and I actually do the events, the calls, the coffees, etc."

The interview with Conrad was the fifth time Gore had been questioned by the task force but the first time he was asked about the April 1996 luncheon at a Buddhist temple outside Los Angeles. Gore has repeatedly described it not as a fund raiser but as "community outreach" and, later, as a "finance-related" event. In the interview, Conrad was treated to a Gore lecture on how the two terms aren't contradictory. Confronted by Conrad with party memos that seemed to undercut his story, Gore snapped back, "I sure as hell did not have any conversations with anyone saying, 'This is a fund-raising event.'" Gore ally Hsia was convicted in March in connection with straw contributions at the temple event, though Gore is not alleged to have known of her actions. Conrad asked Gore about other matters, including his relationship with Huang and others and his knowledge of improperly archived e-mails, the latest issue to be seized upon by the G.O.P. (a year's worth of Gore's e-mail appears to be missing).

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.

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