WASHINGTON -- A senior Justice Department prosecutor has recommended that Attorney General Janet Reno appoint a special counsel to investigate Vice President Al Gore in connection with 1996 Democratic fund raising, sources familiar with the inquiry said Thursday.
Robert J. Conrad Jr., who heads the Justice Department task force investigating 1996 fund-raising abuses, told Reno that fresh questions have arisen about Gore's truthfulness after investigators questioned him under oath on April 18, the sources said.
Conrad's recommendation places renewed pressure on Reno, who rejected an earlier recommendation from one of Conrad's predecessors, Charles G. LaBella, to ask for an independent counsel to investigate Gore. She also declined to do so after two preliminary investigations of Gore's role in Democratic fund-raising telephone calls from his White House office.
This latest development could spell serious political trouble for Gore, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, raising anew questions about his veracity in the midst of the 2000 campaign. The appointment of a special counsel in itself would provide new fodder for Republicans and any such inquiry could easily continue through the November election.
Reno's reaction to Conrad's recommendation was not known. The attorney general has been criticized intensely by GOP lawmakers and officials for past refusals to seek an independent investigation of the Democrats' fund raising.
''It's a preliminary recommendation,'' a Justice Department official said. ''Conrad and other officials are reviewing the information they have gathered before a final decision will be made by the attorney general.''
Gore, campaigning in Minneapolis Thursday, said that he knew nothing of the matter.
His communications director, James E. Kennedy, said: ''As of now, we have received no word from the Department of Justice about the reported campaign finance development. As you know, the vice president has cooperated fully with the investigation every step of the way.''
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, jumped on the news to reiterate a recurrent campaign theme.
''Governor Bush believes that the American people are tired of all these scandals and investigations and the best way to make them go away is to elect someone new and different,'' said Bush campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker.
Conrad was appointed by Reno to head the task force investigation that has been ongoing since shortly after the 1996 presidential election.
Gore, who was previously questioned four times by campaign finance investigators, was interrogated for four hours by Conrad and two FBI agents in April. The subjects included his role the 1996 Democratic fund-raiser at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif.
Although the independent counsel law, under which Reno was authorized to seek an outside investigation, has expired, the attorney general can appoint a special prosecutor if she decides that the Justice Department would have a conflict of interest in handling the matter.
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