WASHINGTON - Independent Counsel Robert Ray has empaneled a new grand jury to hear evidence against President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal as he tries to determine if criminal charges are warranted, legal sources said Thursday.
The news angered Democrats on the night Vice President Al Gore was to accept the party's presidential nomination at its convention in Los Angeles. ''It's probably just another Republican dirty trick,'' Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said.
The move follows through on Ray's promise to consider whether the president should be indicted after he steps down from office next January. Legal experts cautioned the decision doesn't mean charges will ever be filed.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that the grand jury was empaneled on July 11. Prosecutors identified the Lewinsky case as the sole purpose of investigation, said the sources, who are outside Ray's office.
The move comes a year and a half after Clinton was impeached by the House and then acquitted by the Senate, allowing him to serve out the remainder of his term.
The White House reacted angrily. ''The timing of this leak reeks to high heaven,'' White House spokesman Jake Siewert said. ''Given the record of the Office of the Independent Counsel, the timing is hardly surprising.''
Gore's staff said the vice president wouldn't be deterred on the night he was to deliver his nomination acceptance speech.
''People are sick and tired of seeing the judicial system manipulated for political purposes,'' Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway said. ''It seems clearly calculated to have a political impact.''
House Democratic Whip David Bonior of Michigan added: ''It's the ugliest kind of politics. It's something that will be rejected by the American people.''
Karen Hughes, spokeswoman for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP nominee, said: ''It's not appropriate for this type of announcement to be made on a day that the vice president is going to accept the Democratic nomination.''
At issue is whether Clinton committed perjury or obstructed justice when he denied an affair in sworn testimony in the Paula Jones case.
The judge in the Jones case has already ruled the president gave false testimony and fined him for civil contempt of court. The disciplinary committee of the Arkansas Supreme Court has also moved to revoke Clinton's law license.
The issue for Ray is whether Clinton's conduct amounted to criminal conduct.
Ray also got the go-ahead to continue his investigation Wednesday from the three-judge panel that appointed him as Ken Starr's replacement last year.
The judges ruled that termination of the office ''is not currently appropriate'' under the independent counsel law, which expired last year but still applies to Ray's office under a grandfather clause.
Keith Ausbrook, senior counsel to Ray, declined comment about any grand jury activity, which is kept secret by law.
But in response to the judges' order, Ausbrook noted that ''we've made public that the Lewinsky investigation remains open and that the e-mail investigation remains open.''
The e-mail probe focuses on whether the White House concealed thousands of electronic messages sought by investigators. Presidential aides deny wrongdoing.
Ray's office recently closed the books on two other Clinton-era controversies - the White House gathering of secret FBI files on Republicans and the firings of White House travel office employees. The prosecutor declined to bring criminal charges in either case.
An expert cautioned that empaneling a new grand jury is no guarantee that Ray will seek an indictment.
''It's merely a step in an investigation, not an indication an indictment would ever be approved by a grand jury or even presented to the grand jury,'' said John Douglass, a former prosecutor in the Iran-Contra scandal.
''At this stage in this particular investigation it would be highly unlikely for a new grand jury to receive any new information that had not already been considered at length by Ken Starr, the United States Congress and the prior grand jury,'' said Douglass, an expert in criminal law and criminal procedure at the University of Richmond.
Ray, however, has made no secret he intends to weigh whether Clinton should be indicted.
''There is - as the public is well aware - a matter involving the president of the United States in connection with the Lewinsky investigation,'' Ray said in a television interview with ABC in March.
''The country went through the matter of impeachment. The judgment was made by the country that it was not appropriate to remove the president from office,'' Ray said.
''It is now my task as a prosecutor, with a very limited and narrow focus, to determine again whether crimes have been committed and whether ... it is appropriate to bring charges.''
The Clinton-Lewinsky grand jury is one of eight grand juries currently in operation at the federal courthouse in Washington.
Getting a separate grand jury for Clinton-Lewinsky is ''a way for Ray to be prepared to act quickly and to deal with this question efficiently when he turns to it,'' said John Barrett of the St. John's University School of Law and a former Iran-Contra prosecutor.
The panel of federal appeals judges that renewed Ray's office is required by law to consider the investigation's status once a year.
Last year, one of the three judges, Richard Cudahy, said the ''endless investigation'' should be shut down with the departure of Starr. The two other judges, Peter Fay and David Sentelle, ruled the office should continue.
On Wednesday, all three judges were in agreement.