By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 1998
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) read an angry
editorial about Democratic fund-raising follies. Attorney General
Janet Reno replied that she doesn't care about editorials. Sen.
Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) also criticized Reno for her refusal
to seek an independent counsel. Reno said she doesn't mind criticism.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) even trotted out charts to make a point.
Reno said she isn't swayed by charts.
It was a familiar scene at the Senate Judiciary
Committee yesterday, as Reno deflected pointed questions from
frustrated Republicans about the inquiry into 1996 campaign finance
abuses. The result was familiar, too: verbal stalemate, legal
"This ain't our first rodeo," Thompson
said later in an interview. "We've been back and forth on
this issue so many times, but nothing ever changes."
The committee's Justice Department oversight
hearing had its moments of drama, but none of them resolved the
impasse between Reno and her GOP critics over her refusal last
year to recommend the appointment of an independent counsel for
the campaign finance probe.
Thompson disclosed new details from FBI Director
Louis J. Freeh's confidential 1997 memo urging Reno to appoint
a special prosecutor. Specter accused Reno of a double standard,
complaining that she backed an independent counsel to investigate
Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman on evidence even she acknowledged
was inconclusive while ignoring obvious evidence of abuses by
President Clinton and Vice President Gore. Hatch, the committee
chairman, warned Reno that the campaign controversy would be her
most memorable legacy.
But Reno refused to budge from the decision
she made in December. She said she reviews the situation "every
day," and is "absolutely convinced" that the evidence
compiled so far should not trigger the independent counsel statute,
regardless of headlines about White House coffees, allegations
of Chinese money going into U.S. campaigns and the sleepovers
for big contributors in the Lincoln Bedroom.
She said she had full confidence in the Justice
Department's own two-year investigation, which after a series
of early mishaps has now secured charges against 11 Democratic
fund-raisers, including a flurry of four indictments in the past
week. The probe, she said, will continue.
"I don't do things based on editorials,"
she said. "I don't do things based on pressure. I do things
based on the law."
The problem with the Justice probe, according
to the Republican critics, is that while a few prominent fund-raisers
have been indicted, notably Johnny Chung, Yah Lin "Charlie"
Trie, Maria Hsia and Pauline Kanchanalak, no one on the receiving
end of the campaign contributions has been charged.
They argue that the Justice Department has
both the appearance of a conflict of interest and an actual conflict
in investigating evidence of White House involvement in the fund-raising
Some senators did ask Reno about Justice
Department policies on issues such as immigration, drugs and handguns,
and several Democrats on the committee used the forum to air complaints
about independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
But the hearing was dominated by campaign
finance, with weary-sounding Republicans warning that Reno's handling
of the issue may doom the independent counsel statute when it
comes up for reauthorization next year.
"You're going to kill this statute,"
Hatch said. "I don't know, maybe that's not such a bad thing.
. . . But I really think you need to revisit this issue."
Charles G. LaBella, the outgoing head of
the Justice Department's campaign finance task force, is writing
a final report that may address the independent counsel issue
once more. LaBella once recommended that Reno appoint a special
prosecutor to investigate fund-raising calls made from the White
House by Clinton and Gore, and some Republicans predict that he
will now recommend an independent counsel with a much wider mandate.
Of course, the final call lies with Reno.
But one telling exchange yesterday served as a reminder: Her critics
can't change her decision, but they can always complain about
"I'll stay here for you until hell freezes
over," Reno said after Specter requested more time to explain
his complicated charts.
"That just may happen," Specter
replied. "That just may happen."
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