A memo suggests that Justice felt pressure to save Reno's job by not investigating fundraising.
FBI Director Louis Freeh wrote a memo in the earliest days of the Democratic fundraising investigation suggesting a top Justice Department official was under pressure not to proceed with the inquiry, to save Attorney General Janet Reno's job.
The memo, belatedly turned over to Senate investigators this week, also discloses that Freeh urged Reno and Justice Department public integrity chief Lee Radek to step aside from the investigation as early as December 1996 because of purported comments made by Radek.
The memo was described to the Associated Press by several government officials who have seen it since the FBI turned it over to be produced to the Senate and House Judiciary committees investigating the fundraising matter.
In the Dec. 9, 1996, memo to Deputy FBI Director William J. Esposito, Freeh recounted, third-hand, comments Radek allegedly made to Esposito suggesting he was being pressured in connection with the investigation into Democratic fundraising improprieties during President Clinton's 1996 re-election.
Freeh's memo quotes Radek as telling Esposito he was "under a lot of pressure not to go forward with the investigation" because Reno's job "might hang in the balance," according to the Associated Press.
Radek said late Thursday the memo's description of the conversation has "no basis in fact."
At the time, there were reports in Washington speculating on whether Reno, who requested the Whitewater independent counsel investigation, would serve a second term as attorney general.
She steadfastly resisted an independent prosecutor for fundraising but has named seven independent counsels to investigate the president and his administration _ at times angering Clinton's supporters.
Freeh wrote Esposito that he met with Reno and told her about Radek's purported comments and suggested on that basis both Radek and Reno should step aside from the investigation, the AP reported.
The FBI also turned over a second memo from Freeh that discloses that early in the fundraising investigation the Justice Department tried to bypass using FBI agents to do investigative work, relying instead on inspector general investigators from the Commerce Department.
Freeh wrote his general counsel, Larry Parkinson, that he was concerned the bureau was being cut out of the fundraising inquiry, the officials said.
Radek said he never was under pressure to scrap the investigation to help Reno.
"I have no recollection of ever saying I was under pressure because the attorney general's job hung in the balance," Radek said in a prepared statement.
FBI spokesman John Collinwood declined comment.
Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin said: "This attorney general has never let her own self-interest color her own decisionmaking."
The emergence of the Freeh memo comes at a sensitive time for the FBI and Justice Department, whose relations have been strained by very public disputes over the investigations into China espionage and fundraising.
Law enforcement officials told the AP that Reno has received an internal report on the government's handling of the case of nuclear lab scientist Wen Ho Lee that criticizes both agencies.
According to the AP's sources, the report by prosecutor Randy Bellows blames the FBI for not providing enough oversight and resources in the early part of the investigation when leads of Lee's possible spying for China emerged.
After months of suggestions that Lee would be indicted for espionage, the scientist was charged last December with lesser offenses with no suggestion he gave secrets to China.
The Bellows report sides with the FBI on one issue _ that the Justice Department had enough grounds to approve a warrant for electronic surveillance in the Lee case, according to the AP. Justice had rejected the FBI's request, angering its agents.
But the Bellows report adds that the FBI did not provide the department with all the information it collected that could have helped in the decision.
The Freeh memo involving fundraising emerges more than two years after Congress first began reviewing the conduct and quality of the criminal fundraising investigation, in which several Democratic donors and fundraisers have been convicted.
The FBI did not disclose the existence of the memo to Justice officials until late last month and it wasn't turned over to Senate investigators until this week, the AP reported.
Lawmakers mostly have focused on debates within Justice and the FBI in 1997, 1998 and 1999 to name an independent prosecutor to take over the inquiry of Clinton and Vice President Al Gore's fundraising.
Freeh and the former head of the Justice task force that ran the investigation both have acknowledged they fervently argued later in the investigation for appointment of a special prosecutor, but Reno turned them down.
But Freeh's memo provides the first evidence that such arguments dated to the very beginning of the investigation in late 1996 and were based in part on concerns about possible political pressures.