Reno should order funding investigation

Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision not to appoint an independent counsel to investigate alleged campaign abuses in last year’s federal elections has undermined the legitimacy of campaign finance laws. More than 20 years ago, Congress ordered restrictions on private contributions to parties and candidates in an effort to prevent wealthy interests from disproportionately influencing the political process.
Reno’s refusal to heed congressional demands from both parties to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the charges is disastrous as a matter of policy. Her attempt to shield the disclosure of potential improprieties by high-ranking Clinton administration officials ultimately means that affluent individuals and well-funded interest groups will continue to wield an unfair advantage in selecting the nation’s most powerful public officials.
Although Reno’s decision was based on the recommendations of prosecutors in the Department of Justice, her advisers were wrong to conclude that there is no solid evidence of flagrant violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act by either the Clinton or Dole campaigns. So-called soft money contributions are at the center of the controversy. Under federal regulations, soft money raised by both the Democratic and Republican national committees is supposed to be used for general party-building purposes or to influence non-federal elections. But no one believes the soft money contributions given by the committees to the Clinton and Dole campaigns were used solely to bolster the party. Much of it was meant to directly influence the outcome of the presidential race — clearly an illegal use of those funds.
In fact, the justice department’s insistence that campaign finance laws weren’t violated doesn’t jibe with reports of infringements that have recently been revealed. The most visible infractions were the Democratic National Committee commercials paid for with soft money and scripted by the Clinton team. Former Clinton adviser Dick Morris says that Clinton outlined many of the spots himself. Vice President Al Gore’s solicitation of campaign contributions from his White House office also bucked laws that forbid such fund-raising activities in federal buildings.
Republicans are as guilty as Democrats. When Bob Dole ran out of money several months before the GOP convention, he relied on soft money to sustain his campaign. Dole insists his campaign messages during the period did not focus on his candidacy, but rather prioritized building a stronger, more politically viable Republican Party. The credibility of that claim, however, is undermined by television ads that criticized the president.
Reno and the justice department cannot grant parties and candidates permission to flout campaign finance laws and spend soft money contributions as they please. Allowing unlimited use of soft money corrupts the democratic process. That reality should be reason enough for Reno to reverse her decision and appoint an independent counsel to investigate both party’s fund-raising tactics.