Campaign Finance Flap Puts Pressure on Reno

WASHINGTON -- Pressure to scrutinize Democratic Party campaign finance practices intensified as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican, said Attorney General Janet Reno has "no choice" but to initiate the process that could lead to appointment of an independent counsel.

Lott criticized Reno on Sunday for failing to launch a preliminary investigation of alleged illegal fund-raising activities, characterizing her inaction as "totally indefensible."

Reno so far has declined repeated calls to appoint an independent counsel, saying she has not seen enough evidence to justify that step. The matter remains under review by Justice Department attorneys.

"I don't see how she could avoid it, starting the preliminary investigation. But our calls to the Justice Department this past week indicated that they have not done that," Lott said on CBS television's "Face the Nation."

"I'm not calling for her to step down," he added. "I'm calling for her to exercise the law and put it in the hands of independent counsel."

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, expressed concern that alleged campaign fund-raising improprieties involving foreign interests might have compromised U.S. national security. He noted, however, that he would defer to the judgment of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the issue of pursuing an investigation.

"The public needs to be reassured that an independent look will be taken at what has been happening, and if there have been infractions." Moynihan said on NBC television's "Meet the Press."

"If there have been wrongdoings, there will be consequences," he said.

Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican, speaking on the same program, agreed that Reno should begin the process that could produce an independent counsel inquiry. "There seems to be enough credible evidence that probably she should go forward," Hatch said.

The comments came as partisan infighting has Capitol Hill lawmakers deeply at odds over whether and how to proceed to investigate the unfolding allegations of wrongdoing.

Some Senate Republicans are seeking to exclude congressional campaign practices from the Government Affairs Committee inquiry into the matter, limiting the probe to the 1996 presidential race. And many Democrats and a few Republicans are opposing the proposed $6.5 million investigatory budget sought by Senator Fred Thompson, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the government affairs panel.

But Hatch argued that the money is not excessive when compared with the amount spent probing previous claims of political wrongdoing, such as the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals.

The Democratic National Committee announced Friday it would return another $1.5 million in donations, including more than $200,000 from foreigners or foreign-based firms and $3,000 from a woman who has been dead for 10 years, The Washington Post reported.