San Jose Mercury News

Janet Reno isn't the problem: If Republicans really wanted to stop campaign-finance abuses, they could quit blocking reforms

The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on Wednesday, 12-9-98

If only Republican indignation about the conduct of Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign were transformed into Republican zeal for campaign finance reform. Instead, GOP leaders in Congress continue to lash Attorney General Janet Reno for not seeking special prosecutors while they squelch reforms of the campaign laws that so ineffectively prevented the Democratic spending spree they deplore.

On Monday, Reno declined to seek the appointment of an independent counsel to look into Clinton's role in the Democratic Party's advertising campaign in the 1996 election. Previously, she had declined to seek one to investigate Vice President Al Gore.

Republicans are squawking, but Reno is right, on this narrow question.

An audit by the Federal Elections Commission staff in August argued that the Democratic campaign erased the line between so-called hard money contributions to specific candidates and soft money contributions to the party. Hard money contributions are limited as to amount, but can be spent to promote individual candidates. Soft money contributions are not limited, but may be used only to promote broad messages, not individuals.

The Democratic advertising campaign, funded by soft money, was designed to promote Clinton's re-election and was coordinated with him and his campaign staff, the FEC audit said. It proposed that the Clinton campaign repay $7 million of the public funds the campaign had received.

Unfortunately for Republicans, any contention that Clinton won by cheating is undercut by the FEC audit's other recommendation: The Bob Dole campaign should repay $17.7 million.

Reno's job was to determine whether there were grounds for a criminal prosecution, as opposed to civil penalties that the FEC might levy. She needed evidence that Clinton deliberately broke the law.

It wasn't there. The Clinton campaign sought and followed the advice of attorneys that the ads were legal. Last week, a

bipartisan majority of the FEC members, as opposed to the staff, said it was not clear that the ads broke the rules, and that FEC previous rulings in this area had created confusion. How could Reno propose to prosecute on that?

Reno's finding should not be considered exoneration of the Democratic campaign generally. Other aspects of it, including the possible receipt of illegal foreign contributions, continue to merit investigation.

In the meantime, Congress can revive campaign finance reform that would end the soft money charade, and it could give the Federal Elections Commission teeth.

Republicans have been the primary impediment to reform. They don't need Janet Reno to start cleaning up this mess.

(c) 1998, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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