WASHINGTON - Attorney General Janet Reno announced Wednesday she has decided not to appoint a special counsel to investigate Vice President Al Gore's 1996 campaign fund-raising activities.
Reno told a news conference that after reviewing a transcript of an April interview that Gore had with federal investigators, she concluded that ''further investigation is not likely to result in a prosecutable case.''
''I've concluded that there is no reasonable possibility that further investigation would produce evidence to warrant charges,'' said Reno, rejecting for the third time the notion an outside counsel should investigate the vice president.
The decision is good news for Gore's presidential campaign. It comes less than a week after it was disclosed, on the day of Gore's acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention, that Independent Counsel Robert Ray has impaneled a new grand jury to decide whether President Clinton should be indicted after he leaves for office in connection with his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Gore's spokesman, Chris Lehane, said: ''We are pleased with today's Justice Department announcement. But our focus is going to remain where it has always been - which is on using our prosperity to help America's families.''
The attorney general's decision, first reported in Wednesday's editions of The New York Times, also was likely to renew criticism of her by Republicans in Congress. They bitterly criticized Reno's two early decisions not to seek an outside investigator to look into fund-raising telephone calls that Gore made from his office and into whether he lied to investigators when he said he thought the money he raised was to be used for general party-building rather than for the Clinton-Gore re-election effort.
This time, Robert J. Conrad Jr., head of Reno's campaign task force, urged her, after he interviewed Gore in April, to name an outside counsel to determine whether Gore lied about whether he knew that a campaign event at a Buddhist temple in California was a fund-raiser.
That event has led to convictions of others on charges that the true donors were concealed.
But Reno went to lengths to praise Conrad, saying ''he is one person who deserves a great deal of credit for the success'' of the investigation.
''I am impressed with his judgment ... and his knowledge of the law. He is an excellent prosecutor,'' she said.
A government official, requesting anonymity, said Conrad was the only prosecutor in the department who recommended a special counsel. Reno denied, however, that that Conrad was the lone voice in the Justice Department advocating a special counsel. She said two other advisers had recommended a special counsel, but would not identify them by name or job.
Officials said FBI Director Louis Freeh made a recommendation, and Reno said Freeh is consulted on all matters involving the FBI. Freeh has consistently advocated an outside counsel for several years to handle the campaign finance investigation, and no official said his views had changed.
''There will always be disagreements among lawyers,'' Reno said, ''but I can tell you my regard for Bob Conrad has only increased as I have dealt with him on this issue.''
When word got out in late June that Conrad was recommending an outside counsel, Gore immediately released the 123-page transcript of his interview. In that session, he wrestled with the definition of ''fund raising'' and insisted there was no price tag on White House coffees with party supporters.
After Reno's announcement Wednesday, Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush issued a statement saying: ''While it's clear that Al Gore engaged in a number of questionable fund-raising activities and gave the FBI statements that continue to raise the issue of his credibility, the American people are sick and tired of all these scandals and investigations. The best way to put all these scandals and investigations behind us is to elect someone new.''
Reno said the investigation will continue, adding that ''we should be encouraging candid, vigorous internal discussion as we determine how to proceed.'' She lamented leaks of preliminary recommendations in such probes, saying that ''is not fair to those involved and it undermines the fairness and credibility'' of the undertaking.
''I've carefully reviewed the transcripts of the vice president's interview (with investigators),'' she said. ''Because further investigation is not likely to result in a prosecutable case ... I have concluded that a special counsel is not warranted. The transcripts reflect neither false statements nor perjury.''
In the earlier decisions, at least one of Reno's senior Justice Department aides had dissented from her conclusions.
The vice president has repeatedly maintained that he didn't know he was attending a fund-raiser when he visited the California temple where $60,000 in illegal donations were funneled to the Democratic National Committee during the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign.
In June, Gore released the transcript of his April 18 interview with Conrad after word of Conrad's recommendation was disclosed to the press by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
''You were aware in late February, were you not, that there was a goal of raising $108 million by the DNC?'' Conrad asked Gore.
''Yes,'' the vice president replied.
''Then a couple of months later there is a DNC-sponsored event at the temple and it didn't raise any fund-raising issues in your mind?''
''I did not know this was a fund-raiser,'' Gore answered. ''And I do not to this day know that it was a fund-raiser.''
Gore also testified, ''I sure as hell don't recall having - I sure as hell did not have any conversations with anyone saying this is a fund-raising event. As to whether or not I had any follow-up conversations that said, were we able to set up this event or not, I don't think I did. But I may have.''
Conrad also confronted Gore with an e-mail exchange with an aide in which Gore referred to a fund-raiser in Los Angeles on April 29, the same day as the temple event.
''It appears that, from this e-mail, that she has told me in this e-mail that we've confirmed the fund-raisers for Monday, April 29,'' Gore acknowledged.
The questioning also dealt with the White House coffees that both President Clinton and Gore hosted for big-money donors.
Gore, when asked the role coffees would play in raising money, replied, ''Let me define the term 'raising.' ... If you mean by it, would they be events at which money was raised, the answer is no.''
Asked whether he hosted 23 White House coffees, Gore said ''that seems inaccurate to me.'' Two days after the interview, Gore's lawyer clarified his client's answer, saying Gore had hosted 21 coffees for donors in the Old Executive Office Building - next to the White House.
''He did not understand your question to include OEOB coffees,'' Gore's lawyer wrote Conrad. The lawyer said Gore thought Conrad was referring to coffees at the White House hosted by Clinton. Gore had not reviewed the records of coffees before the interview, the lawyer wrote.