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Burden of Proof

Campaign '96 Buddhist Temple Fund-Raiser Comes Back to Haunt Vice President Al Gore

Aired June 27, 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)

VICE PRES. AL GORE (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: 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 in which I asked people to contribute to our reelection campaign.

JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: 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.

GORE: I think the truth is my friend in this, the truth, the full truth and nothing but the truth. And then you can judge it for yourselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROGER COSSACK, CO- HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, a Buddhist temple fund-raiser from the 1996 campaign comes back to haunt the vice president. The attorney general has refused calls for an independent investigation and Congress wants to know why.

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

COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Greta is on jury duty. How'd you like to be on that jury?

And the attorney general is heading to Capitol Hill this afternoon. Janet Reno is expected to face tough questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee about Vice President Al Gore's 1996 fund- raising activities. Robert Conrad, the head of the Justice Department's task force on campaign finance is recommending a special counsel be appointed to probe Gore's visit to a Buddhist temple.

On Friday, the vice president released transcripts of his interview with government investigators.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GORE: You can make a judgment as to what it says about the whole thing. I have told the truth, I have cooperated fully, and I don't want people to have the impression that I'm trying to hide something here. I am not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: Joining us today from San Diego is Charles LaBella, the former head of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force who also recommended the appointment of an outside investigator. On Capitol Hill, we're joined by Republican senator Jeff Sessions, a member of the Judiciary Committee. And here in our studio, Joe Elwood (ph); former White House counsel Lanny Davis; and Chris Merring (ph). In the back, Hillary Colme (ph), Dan Lee (ph) and Jen Powell (ph).

And also joining us here in Washington is CNN Justice correspondent Pierre Thomas.

Well, Pierre, the attorney general goes up to Capitol Hill today and will face some tough questioning. What are they going to be asking her?

PIERRE THOMAS, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, first and foremost, they will probably ask her about the situation involving Robert Conrad, the current head of the campaign task force. They'll want to know what is his recommendation and try to get a sense from the attorney general in terms of whether she will accept it. I expect her to be fairly mum on that particular question, particularly in the open session.

The other thing to look for is an analysis of the FBI director's memo calling for an independent counsel investigation, and also, the memo by Charles LaBella. The FBI director in his memo called for an independent counsel but also offered some pretty stark criticism of the investigation, how it was handled up to that particular point. So I expect the senators to look very, very closely at that issue and try to get Reno's response as to why she did not go for an independent counsel, but also, what were some of the flaws in the investigation.

COSSACK: Pierre, you know, the attorney general has weathered some pretty fierce criticism on the issues of whether or not she should call for an outside counsel to investigate these issues and she's stood so far very strong. What is exactly -- why does she object so strongly to an outside counsel?

THOMAS: Well, if you look at it, there were basically two competing interests in the Justice Department about how you conduct this investigation. I'm oversimplifying here but one theory called that there was a conspiracy by senior Democrats and officials at the White House to circumvent campaign finance law and that the argument that some made is that, look, you have enough evidence suggesting there might have been some sort of violation so you need an outside investigator because of potential conflict of interest.

The second theory involved looking at some of the bottom up people, people who might have done specific acts of illegal campaign contributions and then going from there. And if you get evidence of wrongdoing, then going forward with an outside investigation. So those two theories were sort of butting heads. And Reno always thought to look in favor of the one that said, look, we will take the evidence as we get it, and if we get specific evidence, we'll go forward on that particular venue.

COSSACK: Chuck LaBella joins us from San Diego.

Chuck, you initially investigated the president but it wasn't exactly for -- in fact, it was not for what Robert Conrad has most recently -- as we understand -- called for an outside counsel. This had to do with hard money, soft money and telephone calls. Tell us about it.

CHARLES LABELLA, FMR. HEAD, CAMPAIGN TASK FORCE, JUSTICE DEPT.: Well, the original focus of the allegations concerning the vice president were whether or not he was aware that in the phone call solicitations he was making from the White House, there was a hard money-soft money component. If there was a hard money-soft money component, it would have been soliciting contributions, and it was potentially a violation of a very old act called the Pendleton Act. And that's what the focus was.

COSSACK: And when you -- tell us about how you conducted your investigation. What did you do? Did you talk to the vice president? And who else did you subpoena?

LABELLA: Well, actually, the public integrity section was in charge of that particular investigation. And I was at the interview. You know, we all asked questions of the vice president concerning the memos that went into his office and whether or not he had reason to believe that it was a hard money-soft money component. And he said he did not.

COSSACK: Now briefly, just for our viewers, it's my understanding if he called and made calls for hard money, that would be a violation? But soft money, it would not be a violation? Am I correct?

LABELLA: That's exactly right.

COSSACK: Joining me now is my friend Lanny Davis.

LANNY DAVIS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: That is exactly wrong. Mr. LaBella always fails to mention the Pendleton Act in 117 years has never been seen as a crime for somebody to call from a federal building to a private citizen who is not on federal property. The Supreme Court exactly ruled, Oliver Wendell Holmes, that the Pendleton Act only applied to protect federal workers on federal property and the Justice Department's...

LABELLA: Well, Lanny, let me -- Lanny, let me interrupt you a second.

DAVIS: ... own guidelines say it is not a violation. Mr. LaBella never addresses that.

COSSACK: Lanny, let me just ask you a question. Let me actually go back to Chuck LaBella.

Chuck, you never said in any way that there was a crime that was committed by the vice president. What you called for was further investigation. Am I correct?

DAVIS: There has to be an underlying crime.

COSSACK: Well, let's see what his rationale for doing that is.

Go ahead, Chuck.

DAVIS: And there is none here.

COSSACK: And then I'll give you a chance, Lanny.

LABELLA: OK. What I said was a potential crime. I don't think it's definitively established one way or another whether or not it would have been a crime. The issue was whether or not there was a potential violation of federal law. That's all anybody was saying.

DAVIS: There was no...

LABELLA: And you're right that...

DAVIS: There was no potential violation, Chuck.

LABELLA: Lanny...

DAVIS: Oliver Wendell Holmes said there was none and the Justice Department in its own guidelines said there's no potential violation of the Pendleton Act if you're calling somebody who isn't on federal property.

COSSACK: Did you conclude that all of his phone calls were someone that was not on federal property, Charles?

DAVIS: That's a fact.

COSSACK: Chuck, is that what your conclusions were?

LABELLA: That they were not on federal property?

COSSACK: That the vice president -- yeah, that the vice president never made calls to anyone who is not on federal property?

DAVIS: That's a fact.

LABELLA: Well, he's saying it's a fact. I think the focus was...

DAVIS: It is a fact.

COSSACK: Wait, Lanny.

LABELLA: I think the focus was where the calls were made from. And with all due respect, I think there was some debate whether or not that was a potential violation. I agree that there was no definitive law that said, yes, it was an absolute violation. There was a question and the question was whether or not there should be a further investigation. I mean, I agree more than disagree about that. We disagree on whether or not there was a potential violation. He is very convinced that there's not. I'm not so convinced under the law that that's correct but, you know, people can debate that.

I think the issue was at the time whether or not further investigation was warranted and that was the issue when the attorney general made her decision and we moved on.

COSSACK: All right. And Lanny, isn't that really what we're -- and we're going to be talking about Conrad, too. But isn't that really what the issue here is -- and this show is going to be all about it -- is whether or not an outside counsel should be appointed because there's a conflict of interest and perhaps further investigation is necessary?

DAVIS: Well, first of all, I appreciate Mr. LaBella at least giving credence to the Justice Department's published guidelines that the Pendleton Act is as I described it, not to be used when you're not harassing somebody on federal property. It is a fact that not a single call was made by Gore to anyone on federal property.

Secondly, Mr. Conrad was asking about behavior that even Mr. LaBella agrees was not an underlying crime. Even if the Buddhist temple event was a fund-raiser, which it was not, it is not an underlying crime. So why is Mr. Conrad asking Vice President Gore -- and you read that transcript, he doesn't seem to understand that even if it was a fund-raiser, there is no underlying crime. What's a prosecutor doing asking those questions?

COSSACK: What if Mr. Gore, for example, hypothetically didn't tell the truth to the person that was asking him the questions? Would that be a crime, Lanny?

DAVIS: Well, it's an interesting question. And I'd like to ask Mr. LaBella, does the prosecutor have a right to question somebody without an underlying crime in order to try to find out whether that person's telling the truth? If I ask you whether your house is red or white and I'm a prosecutor, there's no underlying crime, to try to catch you in lying, is that appropriate conduct for a prosecutor? I would say the answer is no.

COSSACK: Let's see if Charles LaBella agrees that there was no underlying crime if, in fact, the vice president had knowledge that he was raising funds in a Buddhist temple. Would that be an underlying crime? Would that be a crime to knowingly raise funds in a religious institution?

LABELLA: No. The way you crystallized the issue is absolutely right, that the questions don't have to -- but materiality is not determined by whether or not the question or the answer relate directly to the crime itself. The materiality issue is whether or not the question and answer are material to the overall investigation. That's the more interesting question that the attorney general has to wrestle with: whether or not the question and answer were material to the overall investigation.

DAVIS: And I agree with Chuck on that. And I would like to pose the question: Is Mr. Conrad acting appropriately as a prosecutor by asking those questions? If you read the transcript, I say he's over the line of propriety. I don't think that it's proper for a prosecutor without identifying at least to a superior what the underlying crime he's investigating. That Buddhist temple event has nothing to do with any underlying crime. The issue of Maria Shaw and the reimbursement scheme has never been tied to Vice President Gore. I think Mr. Conrad should be questioned about why he did that.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. Up next, a closer look at these charges against Vice President Al Gore and should they be investigated by someone outside the Justice Department. Stay with us.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

One of the highest ranking officers with Miami police has been removed from his position after getting caught in a prostitution sting operation. Major Juan Garcia, an 18-year veteran who helped in the Elian Gonzalez raid, allegedly solicited sex from an undercover police officer early Saturday.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GORE: ... that there is no controlling legal authority. Let me repeat, that there is no controlling legal authority. My counsel tells me there is no controlling legal authority. There is no, according to my counsel, there is no controlling legal authority. And, again, I'm advised that there is no controlling legal authority. My counsel advises me there is no case, there's no controlling legal authority. I'm advised that there is no case or no controlling legal authority that says it is a violation of the law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: Vice President Al Gore has been fighting charges of campaign finance wrongdoings for more than three years. As he makes his run for the Oval Office, the vice president's knowledge of a 1996 fund-raising event is still being debated at the Justice Department.

Well, Senator Sessions, what -- Mr. Conrad has now filed his report, is calling for an outside counsel, but this isn't on the telephone calls. This is the attendance at the Buddhist temple, which apparently was a fund-raising event. Is that something that you believe that an outside counsel should be employed to investigate?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: It does to me based on the investigation that I've seen so far, but primarily based on the fact that Mr. Conrad is Attorney General Reno's handpicked prosecutor of substantial experience. And he's the one that knows the evidence in the case. He may have more evidence than you and I know. Based on what he knows and the whole situation that he's involved in, he has recommended to her, his own -- the boss who picked him -- that an independent counsel should be established. I think that ought to be honored. As a matter of fact, it's a second time a handpicked prosecutor by the attorney general has made that recommendation.

COSSACK: Well, Senator Sessions, Lanny Davis argues, of course, that there's no underlying crime, and therefore, there shouldn't be an outside counsel. How do you respond to that?

SESSIONS: Well, there is underlying crimes here. I mean, we know that illegal activities went on. Maria Shaw has already been convicted of crimes relating to this very Buddhist temple fund-raiser. There was illegal foreign contributions. There was illegal use of a tax-exempt organization. An illegal conduit of money went through nuns, who really didn't put the money up, to hide the source.

Am I wrong on that, Lanny?

DAVIS: Senator, you're not wrong about Maria Shaw but what I'm surprised about is that Senator Fred Thompson, after all his hearings on this subject, specifically stated on the record that Vice President Gore had no knowledge of Maria Shaw, and even Congressman Burton, not exactly a partisan of the Clinton White House, agreed there's never been a shred of evidence that Vice President Gore had any knowledge nor did, interestingly, Mr. Conrad suggest as much. The only thing Mr. Conrad suggested was that Vice President Gore hadn't been truthful about whether the Buddhist temple event was a fund-raiser. And as Chuck LaBella and I seem to both agree, there is no underlying crime there whatsoever.

SESSIONS: Well, I...

DAVIS: So that's why there shouldn't be an independent counsel appointed even if Mr. Conrad recommends it. Mr. Conrad can be wrong on this, which I believe he is.

SESSIONS: I don't agree with your analysis there. There was an underlying crime. One of the members has been convicted of it. The question is: Did the vice president know there was a fund-raiser? And if so, he appears to have lied to the investigators because he's denied it.

DAVIS: No...

SESSIONS: Listen, let me finish. And did he then further know that money was being laundered or that illegal monies were being utilized, or was the temple illegally being utilized?

DAVIS: And Mr. Conrad has...

SESSIONS: In which case he could be involved in Title 18371 conspiracy on any one of those charges.

DAVIS: Mr. Conrad has not suggested what you just suggested, that the basis for a professional counsel is a connection to Mr. Shaw.

SESSIONS: Well, I haven't seen it. Have you seen the recommendation of Mr. Conrad?

DAVIS: I've read his questioning of Vice President Gore, which was the basis of his recommendation. That questioning did not even tough upon Ms. Shaw's conduct because nobody not ever, and I think not even you, has ever suggested the vice president knew about that.

SESSIONS: Well, I don't suggest that he knows all about that. What I would suggest is that this is a very controversial case. It has been in the news for a long time. The Buddhist temple is the single most controversial issue in all the fund-raising in my mind, and the American people are entitled to a full and fair investigation. The special counsel -- I mean, the task force attorney selected by Attorney General Reno says we need a special outside counsel. I would agree.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. When we come back, appointing that special counsel. Are the attorney general's hands tied when the long arm of the law reaches right into the White House? Stay with us.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q.: On this day in 1991, Thurgood Marshall retired from the U.S. Supreme Court. How long did he serve on the high court?

A: Marshall served on the U.S. Supreme Court for 24 years. He became the first African-American justice in 1967.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: One year ago this Friday, the embattled independent counsel law expired. Now, if the Justice Department seeks an outside investigator, it has at its disposal the special counsel.

Well, Pierre, understand now that there is some information even with Mr. Conrad's report from the Justice Department, perhaps some people that don't necessarily agree.

THOMAS: Roger, I understand from a number a sources that there's considerable disagreement at the Justice Department that some of Reno's senior aides are saying that there's not any new evidence here, that this is not something that Reno should go forward on. And what you'll see over the next few weeks or next few days is that these aides will start to weigh in. And I think Mr. LaBella had some insight in terms of how that can be. It can be pretty heated.

COSSACK: Chuck, tell us, is it lonely at the top when you're the one making a recommendation and you turn around and everybody else has gotten up and left the room?

LABELLA: It's absolutely lonely. What happens for a field prosecutor when you're in the department environment, the bureaucrats lock arms and you're bucking a bureaucratic wave and very often feel prosecutors are not equipped. I certainly wasn't equipped to deal with it. I hope Bob Conrad is but it's a tough wave to buck. You feel isolated and it's just a very difficult environment in which to operate.

COSSACK: Senator Sessions, you're going to be asking some questions of the attorney general. What are you going to want to know?

SESSIONS: Well, I want to know a couple of things. I want to know a little bit about why that original investigation in 1996 of this temple, which had been begun by her, the United States attorney's office in California were stopped by her aide and the public integrity chief Radic. He stopped that investigation, denied a special prosecutor, never interviewed a witness, never examined documents, but based that solely on the fact that news accounts were insufficient.

Now I wonder why we waited four years before the vice president was even interviewed about this. I think it's a really unhealthy way this matter has been conducted and she needs to answer to that. Had it been done effectively early, more evidence would have been obtained. Witnesses have fled the country. The videotape has been disappeared. Documents have been destroyed. So it's not been a proud day for the Department of Justice.

COSSACK: Lanny, put your lawyer hat on for a second and let me go to you on some policy questions. It seems like everybody was in agreement when the independent counsel law expired, that that was a good thing. Now we have the ability of the attorney general to appoint what's called an outside counsel when there's these kinds of perhaps a pure incident of conflict of interest. I mean, isn't this a prime example of what the problem -- how do you solve this problem? There's a conflict of interest. You have attorney general appointed by a, you know, Democrat. What do you in a situation like this?

DAVIS: Actually, I go back to Senator Dole. And I'm disappointed that Senator Sessions doesn't remember what it was like when the Republicans were upset with Lawrence Walsh for overreaching as an independent counsel. Senator Dole didn't want appearances to be the standard. Otherwise, a Democratic attorney general investigating a Republican senator would be an appearance you'd have to appoint a special counsel.

Haley Barbour, who I didn't hear Chuck LaBella talk about, was a covered person under the independent counsel act. There were allegations of foreign fund-raising. There was an underlying crime. I never heard Chuck LaBella say there should be an independent counsel for Haley Barbour. In fact, we have to go back to our Justice Department. We Democrats are responsible for that independent counsel act. That was a mistake. Senator Dole was right in criticizing Lawrence Walsh. What we did to Raymond Donovan was a disgrace. And we're now going back to the days where we're starting to talk about special counsels being appointed where there's no underlying crime. I don't think we want to go there.

COSSACK: All right, let me go to -- Senator Sessions, in the few minutes -- few seconds we have left, isn't an outside counsel -- don't we run right into the problem that we had with an independent counsel, that kind of who really has control?

SESSIONS: Well, the problem is you've got to understand, the attorney general controls this investigation absolutely. Conrad is just a line attorney in her staff. She holds her job at the pleasure of the president and the vice president of the United States. She is not an independent person in that sense. The American people are entitled to an investigation that they can know on this very important matter is independent and objective and fair. And if it clears the vice president, I hope it does, and we put it behind us.

COSSACK: All right, senator, I'm afraid that's all the time we have today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Today on CNN's "TALKBACK LIVE," distracted drivers. Is the person in the lane next to you too focused on dialing the cell phone or applying makeup? Tune in and log on at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time, noon Pacific.

And tomorrow on BURDEN OF PROOF, the U.S. Supreme Court wraps up its 2000 session. How will its rulings affect you? Join us then for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

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