Attorney-General under fire over fund-raising inquiry

The United States Attorney-General, Janet Reno, came under political fire yesterday after refusing to appoint an independent lawyer to investigate questionable fundraising by the Democratic Party during last year's presidential election campaign. In resisting Republican calls for such an appointment, Ms Reno now risks coming under investigation herself.

In a weekend television interview, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, warned that if Ms Reno decided not to appoint a "special counsel", he would press for her conduct to be scrutinised by the House of Representatives. It is alleged that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which comes under her aegis, failed to inform the White House that mainland Chinese interests intended to contribute illegally to the Democratic campaign.

Mr Gingrich, argued forcefully for the appointment of a special counsel. Referring to the alleged "Chinese connection", he said that, if proved, it would be "the most extraordinary act of systematically violating American law ... a specific effort to raise enormous sums of money illegally involving foreigners". It is against the law for foreign nationals to contribute to campaign funds in the US.

Mr Gingrich's call for Ms Reno to be investigated was echoed by Dick Armey, leader of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, who said that Ms Reno should resign rather than continue to associate her position with that of a "scandal-ridden" administration.

Ms Reno has argued that the Justice Department is already investigating Democratic Party fundraising and that special congressional hearings on the same subject are already in progress. Her refusal even to start the procedures that would lead to the appointment of an independent lawyer, however, has fuelled suspicions that political considerations are involved and that an attempt is being made to shield the President.

Two separate issues are involved: first, whether foreign interests made contributions to Democratic Party campaign funds; second, whether Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and members of their entourage may have solicited campaign contributions from the White House, against rules barring party fundraising from supposedly neutral presidential territory.

The resurgence yesterday of the party funding issue coincided with the return to centre stage of another simmering Clinton scandal, the Whitewater land deal in Arkansas. A court in Little Rock was due to sentence a business associate of the Clintons, Jim McDougal, architect of the Whitewater deal on 18 counts of fraud and conspiracy. While the charges could attract a total sentence of 84 years in prison, Mr McDougal was expected to come off much more lightly in return for co-operating with investigators. The lighter the sentence, it was speculated yesterday, the greater his co- operation - and the greater the danger to the Clintons.