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Why campaign-finance probe may not harm Clinton


President Clinton is likely to dodge another bullet. Make that three.

With the House Judiciary Committee, Federal Elections Commission, and Justice Department investigating presidential abuses of campaign-finance laws, this triple threat may seem hard to survive. But campaign-finance experts say that, because of the vagaries of campaign-finance law and exhaustiveness of previous investigations, Mr. Clinton is likely to withstand this latest challenge.

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"If the president is in trouble, it won't be over campaign financing," says Jan Baran, general counsel for the 1988 Bush-Quayle campaign.

Although the accusations cover a lot of ground, they revolve around two themes:

Campaign advertising. Attorney General Janet Reno must decide by Monday whether to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Clinton for violating spending limits related to his 1996 political advertising. But even if she does appoint an outside investigator, prosecuting Clinton would be next to impossible. The election law is so complex and vague, say campaign-finance experts, that violators are hard to prosecute. "It's not a prosecutable offense," says Kenneth Gross, former chief of enforcement for the FEC, who advises Republicans and Democrats on campaign law.

Meanwhile, Ms. Reno could be influenced by the Federal Elections Commission, whose commissioners met yesterday to review an FEC audit. The audit recommended that the 1996 campaigns of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole repay the federal government millions of dollars because of advertising spending violations.

But for political and legal reasons, the commissioners were likely to back off from the audit recommendations, say former and present commissioners. Reno had subpoenaed an early draft of the audit to help decide the independent counsel question. If commissioners downplay the audit, it could ease pressure off Reno to appoint a special prosecutor.

Foreign contributions. The issue is whether 1996 contributions from Indonesian and Chinese donors to the Democratic National Committee were illegal, if they resulted in federal policies favorable to the foreign donors, and how much the president was involved in the donations.

"The only issues that seem to have potential saliency are the foreign contributions, and that's become extremely murky," says Mr. Baran, citing a US district judge's ruling this fall. According to the ruling, foreign donations of "soft money" - donations to political parties as opposed to specific campaigns - aren't illegal, though the Justice Department is appealing. The bulk of the 1996 foreign donations, adds Baran, was soft money.

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The House Judiciary Committee's decision this week to "review" campaign finance as a possible impeachable offense covers both advertising and foreign donations. But the committee's tentative schedule doesn't appear to leave time for full-blown hearings. The schedule calls for deliberating articles of impeachment, starting Dec. 10 and voting by the end of next week.

Secret Justice Department memos, sought by the Judiciary Committee, have failed to turn up anything "that was in any way relevant" to the impeachment inquiry, says John Conyers (D) of Michigan, the ranking minority member on the committee.

On Wednesday, a US district judge allowed one attorney from each party on the committee to review the memos, which recommended that Reno seek an independent counsel on the campaign-finance issue.

Still, "there's no risk to the president in this whole campaign finance stuff," says Burt Neuborne, a law professor at New York University, who testified in congressional hearings on campaign-finance abuse last year. The laws, he says, are "so complex, so riven with loopholes" that campaigns end up "tiptoeing" to the edge of a rule without technically violating it.

At the heart of the advertising issue is whether Clinton violated campaign-finance restrictions by disguising reelection ads as so-called issue ads. There are no limits on fund-raising for issue ads, but there are limits for ads that advocate a candidate.

For instance, in 1996, the Democratic National Committee ran a series of ads comparing Clinton's record on issues such as education and taxes with Bob Dole's record. The DNC maintains these were issue ads. But the FEC audit found these ads sent a clear "electioneering message" and resulted from coordination between the DNC and the Clinton campaign. It recommended the campaign repay the government $7 million for the violations, and on similar grounds, that the Dole campaign repay $17 million. "Everything the president did was 100 percent legal," says DNC spokesman Rick Hess. Clinton sought legal advice before getting involved in the ads, he says.

Experts say the vagueness of the election law, and the fact the president sought legal advice, must point Reno away from the independent-counsel option. To prosecute, "you need a clear law, and then you need to show intent," says Mr. Gross. In this case, Reno has neither, he says.

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