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Burden of Proof

Vice President Gore Haunted by Campaign '96 Legal Questions

Aired June 23, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MARCH 3, 1997)

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My counsel advises me that there is no controlling legal authority or case that says that there was any violation of law whatsoever in the manner which I asked people to contribute to our reelection campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETER HART, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: It's a negative impact because it takes Al Gore back into the Clinton administration and talking about the past. Al Gore needs to be talking about a Gore administration in the future. It hurts him.

JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I want to make sure that people are not intimidated, that things are not piecemeal, provided in a way that does not get to the whole truth. I want to try to make sure that investigations get to the truth and that justice is done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: As Vice President Al Gore makes a run for the White House, legal questions continue to haunt him from campaign '96.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Roger is off today.

The head of the Justice Department's campaign task force has apparently recommended the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Vice President Al Gore's 1996 fund-raising activities. That recommendation will be reviewed by senior Justice Department officials who will then pass the recommendation to Attorney General Janet Reno.

Two years ago, Reno rejected a recommendation for an independent or special counsel from the previous task force head.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RENO: The most important thing in any investigation, particularly in this time of year, is that we conduct an investigation the right way, not in the headlines, not with pressure from people who may have differing views, but just do it right -- methodically, carefully, without commenting on it, and get it done as quickly as possible, and then make whatever decisions are the correct decision based on...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: Joining us today from Capitol Hill is Republican Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia. And here in our studio, Royer Culp (ph); former chief counsel to the House Government Reform Committee, Barbara Comstock; and former independent counsel Michael Zeldin. And in our back row, Amanda Neely (ph), John Madison (ph) and Oliver Wheeler (ph).

And also joining us is CNN Justice correspondent Pierre Thomas.

Pierre, what is the history of this investigation? How far back does it go?

PIERRE THOMAS, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Greta, you recall that there was an investigation launched into the White House e-mail controversy. And in April -- April 18, as a matter of fact -- the Justice Department, FBI and the new campaign task force head, Robert Conrad, interviewed President Clinton and also Vice President Al Gore. The subject of the Buddhist Temple came up and, quite frankly, Robert Conrad did not like some of the answers that Vice President Gore gave.

VAN SUSTEREN: Pierre, is this about whether or not the fund- raising was lawful or is this about conflicting statements made by the vice president that is now being investigated to determine whether or not there was a false statement under oath?

THOMAS: Well, what I'm being told is that it centers in part around some of the statements that the vice president made. You recall that, initially, it was described as not a fund-raising event, and then there was later some mention of it being finance-related.

So that is among the things that the new prosecutor is looking at, and I can tell you already there is some division in the Justice Department. Some officials there think that this is still old news, that there's no new -- extraordinarily new evidence coming forward. But then there are others that have a differing point of view.

VAN SUSTEREN: We're going to go to Jeanne Meserve here in Washington for update on an air crash in Florida.

(INTERRUPTED BY COVERAGE OF BREAKING NEWS)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RENO: I think that any time you look at something like this, an investigation -- just a general investigation respecting campaign financing -- that you want to conclude it as quickly as possible consistent with achieving justice. But nothing should be rushed because, too often, when we rush to justice we don't get it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: At a weekly Justice Department briefing, Attorney General Janet Reno fielded questions on the investigation into the Clinton-Gore '96 campaign. The head of the Justice Department Campaign Task Force has recommended the appointment of a special counsel to probe Vice President Al Gore's activities.

Congressman Barr, the attorney general says nothing should be rushed, there shouldn't be a rush to judgment, but this has been hanging around for quite some time. What's your reaction to this investigation?

REP. BOB BARR (R), GEORGIA: Well, they've been hoisted on their own pitard, Greta. The fact of the matter is that the attorney general has avoided dealing with this issue for over three years now. We had the LaBella memo, we had the Freeh memo, we've had other memos that have come to the attorney general months and months and months ago asking for decisions to be made.

Decisions weren't made and now the latest effort here to achieve justice has resulted, I think, in something very embarrassing for the attorney general that she's now having to deal with. Certainly she's correct: You don't rush to judgment, but, by golly, at some point you have to make a decision consistent with law and consistent with the responsibility to get to the bottom of these things. And if these things had been handled in an appropriate manner years or months ago it wouldn't putting the vice president in a very embarrassing and terribly damaging political position right now.

VAN SUSTEREN: Michael, I have to agree with Congressman Barr, we don't always agree on a lot of things but, you know, this has been taking a long time, I mean, and this does hurt the vice president, at least I would suspect at this time, at least from public relations, you worked at the Justice Department. What's the delay?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, FMR. INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: There isn't a delay. I don't understand the point exactly.

VAN SUSTEREN: This has been going on for a long time. We have Charles LaBella with a memo, who made one recommendation, nothing happened, got a new task force heads, now apparently made another.

ZELDIN: But Greta, you're saying nothing happens as if there is no investigation. LaBella ran the task force, he had agents, he had investigative mandate, he had prosecutive mandate, 25 people have been indicted already. This guy Conrad, has the same investigative mandate, the same FBI agents. All he is staying, which is stunning to me, frankly, is: I'm not the right guy to do this, you need a special counsel. So it's not as if there is no action, it's just action by a different person, and I don't understand, frankly, what is new here, that this guy can't do his job, and he's a career prosecutor appointed in 1989 in North Carolina. Why can't he investigate it? what is at issue here? what's the underlying criminality that's at issue?

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me just say one thing, OK, I agree things have been done, you know, I stand corrected on that.

But let me ask Barbara, do we need or is it appropriate to get a special prosecutor?

BARBARA COMSTOCK, FMR. CHIEF COUNSEL, HOUSE GOVT. REFORM OVERSIGHT CMTE.: Well, I mean, this is the latest in a long line of career professionals, and career prosecutors who have said there should be a special prosecutor, someone outside the department. Because the important thing to understand here is Robert Conrad has to answer to political people, and that's who's deciding this. And these things aren't being investigated and that's what -- Chuck LaBella made that point and FBI Director Freeh made that point.

And there are numerous, there are two volumes worth of memos that Congress released a few weeks ago showing that what was happening is they were only investigating the small fry, the people on the bottom, and they weren't allowing them go in and aggressively do a top-down investigation; which is what Director Freeh and Chuck LaBella, the previous prosecutor wanted to do.

And those types of things haven't been investigated, and one of the facts that came out in the story today, pointed out that Al Gore had not even been questioned about the Buddhist temple until April of this year, four years after the event.

VAN SUSTEREN: But you can't blame Gore for that. He has submitted five times to questioning, which I'm not -- frankly, I don't think he had to submit to the questioning, but he has now submitted five times.

COMSTOCK: But the issue now is truthfulness, and that's what everybody is looking -- that's what the FBI is saying; they don't believe him, they're saying they don't believe the defense.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, but I don't even if it's a question of truthfulness. Because I must tell you, is that when you have an investigation like this and you get leaks, you know, and people sort of jump to conclusions that, you know, someone might not have been truthful.

I mean, what I want, and let me go back to you Congressman Barr, is that what I, you know, would think that the American people would want it fast and open to the extent that you can have investigations open.

What would you like to see -- what do you think should be done at this point, Congressman? BARR: Well, what ought to be done at this point is the attorney general, and this is not a problem so much that Al Gore has created, I agree with you, this is a problem that the Department of Justice has created.

Yes, Michael is right, there's been a lot of spinning of wheels and smoke being churned up, but the actual decisions have not been made and they remain in the hands of people subject to tremendous political pressure.

What needs to be done at this point is a special prosecutor needs to be appointed, and he needs to be given a charge by the attorney general to get to the bottom of this, as quickly as possible, and get this thing over with one way or the other and not let it hang out there.

VAN SUSTEREN: Mike, I've got to let you respond. The spinning smoke was essentially -- all right, well, go ahead.

ZELDIN: But Bob, that has been exactly what LaBella's mandate and Conrad's mandate, and Barbara, contrary to what you said, there is absolutely no evidence that these guys have been precluded in any way, shape, or form from bringing indictments against anybody they at their discretion decided to bring back.

BARR: When we had hearings just recently it is very, very obvious that these cases, these investigations of the vice president and president, have not been handled in a manner that you would have Michael, or I as a former prosecutor would have.

There are huge areas that have never been gone into with these people because the investigators and questioners were not allowed to do so. And that's what's coming back to haunt the vice president now.

VAN SUSTEREN: Barbara, do you think that -- the issue really -- we don't really know if anything has changed in the investigation, whether the vice president has done anything wrong. There's been no proof of that. Is the only issue: Who's going to finish or complete the investigation? is that really the only issue?

COMSTOCK: Well, what Bob Conrad has recommended is that someone outside, the way we've done with the Waco investigation, with Senator Danforth's or somebody independent is looking at it.

But the issue here is truthfulness, from the reports it indicates that it's the truthfulness of Al Gore, and he says because Al Gore is Janet Reno's boss, because there's an obvious conflict here, that that...

VAN SUSTEREN: But that's not truthfulness, that's -- no, no, wait a second, that's not about truthfulness, that's about an apparent conflict of interest, whether this is the best...

COMSTOCK: No, it's whether he lied to the FBI is what they're indicating, it's whether he lied to the or the prosecutors in his various interviews because... ZELDIN: But Conrad's point is different, Conrad's point is a process point, he's not saying, in fact...

COMSTOCK: You don't know that, you don't what his point is, we haven't read his memo.

VAN SUSTEREN: We certainly don't know if there's an issue of truth or not, we know...

ZELDIN: What we do know is what's been reported and he said he has no new evidence to believe that the vice president has committed an offense.

COMSTOCK: That's not what he -- what's in that.

ZELDIN: That's what's in the paper.

COMSTOCK: No, the paper is unclear if anything...

ZELDIN: And so what he is saying, what he is saying is as a process matter, someone other than him should handle it, which I find stunning if the issue is whether the president had knowledge of whether the Buddhist temple matter was a fund-raiser or finance- connected.

If you need an independent counsel to investigate that discrete issue, than we don't need formal prosecutors, we need all independent counsels because that is what the essence of what a prosecutor does; day in and day out. And there is nothing new in the standard.

VAN SUSTEREN: Congressman Barr.

BARR: Yes.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is the issue: Who should do this investigation? is that really what the current, Barbara is just shaking her head, I know she disagrees with you, but is that the issue or not? is Barbara right?

BARR: I think that is a major issue, at this point. The problem has been and this has been very apparent in our hearings thus far, the prosecutors, those who want to pursue this case objectively and professionally, people such as Charles LaBella, and Louis Freeh, have been stopped from doing so.

And I believe that the only way that this matter is cleared up one way or the other, and that's why I say I think these people have been hoisted on their own pitard, because they have avoided this issue for 2 1/2 years now, they are now having to face it at a very difficult time for the vice president. That is the issue, is the process the only way that these people are saying these matters can be resolved...

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, well, we're going to take a break...

BARR: ... is for an independent and outside prosecutor. VAN SUSTEREN: All right, hold that thought, Mike. We need to take a break. When we come back, independent counsel versus special prosecutor, what's the difference? Stay with us.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: Why has a Columbine High School shooting review commission decided not to subpoena the sheriff of Jefferson County?

A: Because of pending lawsuits, the county attorney advised the commission that compelling the sheriff to testify would be "ill- advised."

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Advisers to Vice President Al Gore are expressing confidence that Attorney General Janet Reno will not appoint a special counsel to further investigate campaign '96 fund-raising efforts.

Michael, independent counsel statute died about a year ago. What's the special prosecutor? What's the difference?

ZELDIN: Well, it's a difference without a distinction in some respect. But in this case, it's an important difference, which is to say that the special prosecutor is appointed solely by Janet Reno, and in essence, reports up the chain to Janet Reno. The independent counsel was appointed by the court, took them out of the Department of Justice, and kept them reporting to the court.

So in some sense, you've got this funny irony here, where the people who are calling for special counsel are calling for someone to be appointed that is really part of the Justice Department. That is the political problem that they have. So if they really wanted to be true to form, they should have voted for the reauthorization of the independent counsel statute.

VAN SUSTEREN: Bob Barr, if we were going to pick the sort of ideal special prosecutor in this case, what would be the qualifications? Do you want someone Republican, Democrat, Independent? How do you find someone like that?

BARR: Well, to be honest with you, I think the people that they have been appointing to these positions, by and large, have been very, very good. You know, without blowing smoke in his ear, somebody like a Michael Zeldin. He's familiar with the process. He has extensive experience in government cases and criminal cases. He's very objective, and above reproach.

VAN SUSTEREN: Can I -- Congressman Barr, I've known Michael Zeldin for 20 years, and I'm sitting here five feet away. I don't think I can take all that praise for Michael, because I have to put up with him. I don't think I can handle that, but a point well taken. Let me ask Barbara... BARR: But I mean it very sincerely. I mean, that's the sort of person you would look for. And there are a lot of people out there. Chuck LaBella fit that bill as well.

VAN SUSTEREN: Barbara, what would be sort of, what would be your qualifications you'd look for?

COMSTOCK: Well, I'd have to agree with the congressman. I mean, you look at somebody like Senator Danforth who took over the Waco case. Now there's a lot of confidence in how that's going to be handled and resolved. The problem you have here with how Janet Reno and some of her political people have handled this, is there's no confidence in this.

And when you have all these issues about whether or not Al Gore told the truth, and you have Janet Reno, who's been hired by Al Gore, then all the political people, really who owe their, you know, livelihood to Al Gore, being the people to decide it, you're putting them in an impossible situation. So you have to separate it out, and allow those people to do it. And it's really unfortunate that we're here four years, you know, afterwards.

Because six years -- I mean four years ago -- you know, when this first came up in 1996, you had people saying then, you know, FBI Director Freeh, in September of 1996, said this should be handled independently so this type of thing won't happen. The White House fought it. They sent all kinds of signals that if Janet Reno appointed another independent counsel, she wouldn't be reappointed as attorney general herself. And lo and behold, we have this situation.

VAN SUSTEREN: Michael, the attorney general says she's not going to be pressured by leaks. This is a leaked story and...

ZELDIN: That's right. And Greta, you can't lose sight of the fact that this is information that came into the public domain in another terrible fashion, which politicizes a process that should never be politicized.

COMSTOCK: But every memo has leaked out of the Justice Department. This type of memo, the Freeh memo, LaBella, they all leaked out of Janet's Reno's office.

ZELDIN: It doesn't make it good, and it politicizes a process that really should be...

COMSTOCK: It says a lot about her administration, about how she's done that.

ZELDIN: Well, I don't know that it's she who is the leaker. She in fact said that she will investigate this leak.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know what I think is the problem with the fact that it leaks like this is that you run the risk that people think, because someone wants to appoint a special prosecutor, that it necessarily means that the vice president has done something wrong. It simply means to get rid of the apparent conflict. We don't know what the investigation would ultimately reveal.

ZELDIN: And in some respects, with due respect to Senator Specter, who I like and respect, I really thought that yesterday and the timing of yesterday's announcements, were ill-considered by him. This is a leak. He should know better, as a former prosecutor, than to pick it up and politicize it. Because now we find ourselves in an impossible situation to have this matter dealt with appropriately on the facts of the case.

VAN SUSTEREN: And that's all...

BARR: And I agree with Michael.

VAN SUSTEREN: Oh God, this is a love-fest between you and Michael, Congressman Barr.

But that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching. This afternoon, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals plans to issue a ruling in the case of Elian Gonzalez.

Tune into CNN's TALKBACK LIVE for live coverage from Atlanta.

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