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Transcript details Gore interview

He released a transcript of an interview by a Justice official on 1996 fundraising to counter calls to appoint an independent counsel.

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Under questioning by a Justice Department official in April, Vice President Al Gore dramatically underestimated his participation in the 1996 White House fundraising coffees, according to a transcript of the interview released by the Gore campaign Friday.

When asked about the fundraising coffees during the interview April 18, Gore replied: "I may have attended one. I don't know what the record reflects."

In a response reminiscent of his boss' legalistic answers, Gore said when asked what role the coffees would play in raising money, "Let me define the term "raising.' . . . If you mean by it, would they be events at which money was raised, the answer is no."

Two days later, Gore's attorney, James Neal, acknowledged in a letter to the Justice Department that the vice president's memory had betrayed him. A review of White House records showed Gore was "designated" to attend four coffees at the White House and he hosted 21 coffees in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House, according to Neal.

Neal said Gore did not understand that his questioner was asking about the coffees in both buildings.

This discrepancy is apparently one of the reasons Justice Department prosecutor Robert Conrad is urging Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint a special counsel to investigate Gore's alleged role in the illegal fundraising activities of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.

Conrad is said to believe that Gore's responses in the interview were hostile to the point of perjury. Gore, however, says he was "cooperative and professional" under questioning.

Gore decided to release the 150-page transcript of the interview in an effort to dispel the controversy that has enveloped his presidential campaign since Conrad's recent recommendation was made known Thursday by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

It was an unusually bold step for the always-cautious Gore, who has long denied the allegations, but whose denials have never fully convinced law enforcement officials of his innocence.

He announced his decision aboard Air Force Two as it was landing here in Silicon Valley, where Gore -- coincidentally -- attended a $25,000-a-head luncheon fundraiser at the home of multimillionaire former Democratic Senate candidate Joel Hyatt. The fundraising goal for the afternoon was said to be $500,000.

"The truth is my friend in this," a smiling Gore told reporters as he announced his decision to release the transcript. "You can judge it for yourself. . . . I don't want people to have the impression that I'm trying to hide something here."

Gore left no doubt he thought the disclosure of the recommendation was designed to undermine his campaign and help his opponent, Republican George W. Bush.

"I think the timing of this thing sort of speaks for itself," he said.

Chris Lehane, Gore's press spokesman, was more direct.

"Arlen Specter has virtually turned the U.S. Senate into George Bush's press office," he said. "We are not going to put up with this type of political skulduggery and dirty tricks."

In Washington, Reno indicated she was unhappy with the disclosure of Conrad's recommendation. She must decide whether or not to follow the recommendation for a special counsel.

"I am going to do everything in my power to see that any decision that I make is made without political influence from anyone, without pressure from the media," she said.

On the campaign trail, Bush said questions about Gore's fundraising are "indicative of what has gone on" in the Clinton administration. "People are sick and tired of all this stuff," he said. "The best way to make sure that it doesn't happen again is to start with a new administration."

Over the past three years, Gore has been dogged by charges that he made illegal fundraising calls from the White House in 1996 and that he improperly attended a fundraiser at a Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif., during which the Democratic Party collected $60,000 in illegal checks from priests and nuns.

In his first public statement on the subject back in 1997, Gore only made matters worse by repeating time and again that there was "no controlling legal authority" that would enable the Justice Department to prosecute him. Friday's decision to release the interview demonstrates that Gore has adopted a new, more relaxed approach to handling the allegations.

"You were aware in late February, were you not, that there was a goal of raising $108-million by the DNC?" Conrad asked Gore in the interview.

"Yes," Gore replied.

"Then a couple of months later there is a DNC-sponsored event at the temple and it didn't raise any fundraising issues in your mind?"

"I did not know this was a fundraiser," Gore answered. ". . . I sure as hell don't recall having -- I sure as hell did not have any conversations with anyone saying this is a fundraising event."

He told Conrad he learned of the DNC misdeeds on "the day when I first found out that, that it was a fundraiser."

Gore's attorney, Neal, interjected: "I thought you said previously you didn't, you still don't know whether it was a fundraiser."

"Well, that's right," Gore replied. "That is more accurate. Let me . . . amend that. That was the first time that I learned it was alleged to be, to have been a fundraiser. And, again, I still do not know that any funds, that any money changed hands there."

Gore now says he made a mistake by going to the fundraiser, even though he steadfastly insists he was unaware of any wrongdoing.

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