WASHINGTON (AP) - A top Justice Department prosecutor has recommended a special counsel be appointed to investigate Vice President Al Gore in the 1996 campaign fund-raising controversy, government officials said Thursday.
The recommendation, which could impact Gore's Democratic presidential campaign, came from Robert Conrad, supervising attorney for the Justice Department task force investigating 1996 fund-raising abuses, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Conrad interviewed Gore and President Clinton in April. Conrad signaled activity in the investigation on Wednesday when he declined to answer a senator's questions about the vice president and the president.
Officials said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., recently learned about Conrad's recommendation.
``I have reason to believe that Mr. Conrad has made a recommendation that an independent counsel be appointed as to matters related to Vice President Gore,'' Specter said in a telephone interview.
At Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on administrative oversight and the courts, Specter asked Conrad whether ``you made or attempted to make a recommendation'' on a special counsel to investigate Gore or Clinton.
``I don't feel comfortable discussing'' the matter, Conrad replied. Conrad said it is ``something that pertains to an ongoing investigation.''
Specter, in the interview on Thursday, said Attorney General Janet Reno ``has done a great disservice to Vice President Gore because these matters should have been investigated a long time ago.''
Reno repeatedly declined to seek appointment of an Independent Counsel before the statute expired a year ago.
Specter said that his hearings into decision-making within the Justice Department on the fund-raising scandal ``have been very embarrassing to the Department of Justice'' in that ``they did not proceed with an independent counsel as to the vice president a long time ago.''
Reno twice rejected an independent counsel to investigate Gore - once for fund-raising phone calls from his White House office, the second time for possible false statements about that fund-raising.
The recommendations of Conrad and others will go to Reno, who ultimately would make a decision on whether or not to appoint a special counsel.
The special counsel process was set up inside the Justice Department after the independent counsel law expired in June 1999. Under that law, a panel of federal appeals judges appointed independent counsels to investigate matters that would be a conflict of interest for the attorney general to pursue. The attorney general is an appointee of the president.
Among the issues that came up in the fund-raising scandal of 1996 was Gore's visit to a campaign event at a Buddhist temple in California. The vice president has always denied that he knew he was attending a fund-raiser.
Sources familiar with Conrad's questioning of Gore in April say that the investigators did delve into the temple matter in that interview.
It could not be learned from the officials whether Conrad wants a special counsel to investigate the temple issue or other topics.