Incident reminds some people of 1986 Texas campaign bugging that resulted in no charges

Friday, November 3rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

As election nears, FBI inquiry into Bush debate tape mailing is quiet

By Pete Slover / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – After a flurry of initial interviews, the FBI inquiry into the leaked debate material from the George W. Bush campaign has gone quiet during the home stretch of the presidential contest.

Attorney General Janet Reno declined to comment on the progress of the case Thursday, or on whether the Justice Department has put the matter on hold until after Tuesday's election.

"I can't comment on the investigation, because it's pending," Ms. Reno told reporters at her weekly briefing. "But I can say that the department is ... doing everything that is appropriate with respect to the investigation."

The FBI was called Sept. 13 after former New York Rep. Thomas Downey, then a debate adviser to Al Gore, received an Austin-postmarked parcel with briefing papers and a videotape of Mr. Bush in a mock debate.

Agents questioned Yvette Lozano , an aide to Bush media adviser Mark McKinnon, after the FBI obtained a post office security tape of her mailing a parcel.

Ms. Lozano and Mr. McKinnon said the package contained pants being returned to the Gap – not debate material. They and their lawyers did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

Bush aides said this week that FBI interviews within their camp have virtually ceased, but that they couldn't rule out that lab tests or other forensic work may be going on elsewhere.

Around Austin, the case resurrected memories of another debate-related FBI inquiry, a 1986 investigation involving some of the same players. It ended with no charges being filed.

In that case, Mr. McKinnon and Mr. Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, were working on opposite sides in the heated race for Texas governor. Mr. McKinnon advised the Democratic incumbent, Mark White, and Mr. Rove worked for former Gov. Bill Clements, a Republican seeking to regain office.

On the eve of the candidates' first debate in October 1986, Mr. Rove reported that a private investigator had discovered a listening device in his office.

He blamed the Democrats for the bug. Mr. McKinnon and the White camp suggested the Republicans might have bugged themselves.

Shortly after the bug was found, federal authorities cleared both campaigns of planting it but never publicly explained the reasons for their conclusion.

A memo sent to the FBI director in Washington by a Texas supervisor the week the bug was discovered explains why agents concluded that the man who was hired to sweep Mr. Rove's office planted the bug himself, perhaps to impress his employers.

The memo, obtained recently under open records laws, says that FBI lab tests showed that the amount of juice left in the bug's battery indicated it had been turned on earlier on the Sunday it was discovered, a weekend when Mr. Rove was out of town.

Also, an employee of the firm hired to sweep the office said that when he failed to find a bug, his boss tinkered with the equipment and urged him to try again. Rove staffers told agents that the sweep team boss – a former Fort Worth police officer – tried to discourage them from calling police. And that man told agents that he may have touched the battery inside the device, explaining why they might find his fingerprints there.

The memo advised that charges of lying to an FBI officer might be filed against that man. The man, now a rancher in Central Texas, said in a recent interview that he received a "target letter" advising him that a grand jury was considering charges against him, but none was filed. He denied having any role in the planting of the bug.

Staff writer Michelle Mittelstadt in Washington contributed to this report.