Clinton In Crisis: Cloud of financial scandal looming

FOUR YEARS after he was appointed to investigate President Clinton, Kenneth Starr may begin to fade from the headlines, even if his work is not yet quite completed, writes David Usborne. But by the end of this year, he may have been joined in Washington by not just one new special prosecutor, but by three.

Attorney General Janet Reno has in the last two weeks taken several steps towards authorising new prosecutors to look into another potential scandal for the administration. The issue this time will not be sex, but fund-raising during the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.

Ms Reno has abruptly opened three different cases. In less than three months she will be obliged to decide whether preliminary probes into the evidence warrant the appointment of three new prosecutors.Their targets would be President Clinton himself, Vice-President Al Gore and a former aide to the President, Harold Ickes.

Ms Reno made her move on the Clinton case just last week. She now has 90 days to decide on the appointment of a prosecutor to investigate claims that Clinton allowed "soft money", raised to promote the Democratic Party and its positions on issues of policy, to be diverted into the effort to elect himself and the Vice-President. If that happened, and the President knew it, a crime was committed.

The stakes, however, could hardly be higher for Mr Gore. The allegation in his case, is that he knowingly used the office of the vice-president inside the White House - the telephone on his desk - also to raise money for the Clinton-Gore ticket. That too would have been a serious violation of criminal law.

This spells potential disaster for Mr Gore, whose claim to the Democratic nomination for the 2000 presidential race is already looking fragile. If misdeeds are proved against him, he too could face the spectre of impeachment by Congress. His hopes for 2000 would be wrecked. Even worse, he may be in the presidency at that stage, if Mr Clinton has in the meantime resigned or been dislodged.