Fund-raising clouds gather over the White House

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The legal woes of Bill Clinton worsened over the weekend following news that the US Attorney General, Janet Reno, has authorised the opening of a preliminary inquiry into allegations that the President may have broken fund-raising laws during his 1996 re-election campaign.

While still in the earliest stages, the investigation could take on the scale of the Whitewater inquiry and trouble Mr Clinton through the rest of his presidency. A similar investigation of the fund-raising activities of the Vice President, Al Gore, is already under way.

Ms Reno gave the green light to an initial 30-day probe in the Clinton case. If there is sufficient suspicion of wrong-doing, she could then authorise a second-stage, 90-day inquiry. Thereafter, she may take the final step of appointing an independent counsel to pursue a fully-fledged investigation.

In the case of Mr Gore, the first 30-day phase is already almost over and Ms Reno will decide soon whether to pursue it further. Officials at the Justice Department privately predict that the Attorney General is indeed likely to appoint an independent counsel to scrutinise the activities of both the President and Vice President.

At issue are claims that the two men made telephone calls from the White House to solicit funds for last year's re-election effort. Such calls could constitute a crime under a decades-old law that forbids any form of political fund-raising inside federal government buildings.

Hearings have already been opened on Capitol Hill into allegations of wider fund-raising misdemeanours last year by the Democratic Party. The focus of the hearings are claims that dollars were illegally taken from foreign nationals seeking to influence the election. - David Usborne