By George Lardner Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 1998
A House committee voted yesterday to hold
Attorney General Janet Reno in contempt of Congress for refusing
to turn over Justice Department memos subpoenaed in a dispute
over her failure to appoint an independent counsel to investigate
1996 campaign fund-raising abuses.
It was the first time a full House committee
had ever voted to hold an attorney general in contempt. All 24
Republicans on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee
voted for the resolution. Eighteen Democrats and independent Bernard
Sanders (Vt.) voted no.
Republicans on the panel hailed the move
as historic and said it was soundly based on precedents dating
to the 1920s Teapot Dome scandal. Democrats denounced it as an
exercise in "raw intimidation" aimed at forcing Reno
to turn over her department's investigation of 1996 presidential
campaign financing to an independent counsel.
The full House would have to approve a contempt
citation before it could be referred to the U.S. Attorney's office
here for prosecution. Only one high-level contempt citation has
ever gotten that far; two others led to compromises between the
administration and Congress. But yesterday, the two sides seemed
far apart, with Reno warning that release of the documents would
"provide criminals, targets and defense lawyers alike with
a road map to our investigations."
The committee chairman, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.),
took umbrage at suggestions that the Republican majority would
quickly leak the memos, one written by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh
and the other by the former head of the Justice Department's campaign
finance task force, Charles G. LaBella.
"For the attorney general or anyone
else to suggest that we would cavalierly publicize information
that would jeopardize criminal prosecutions is irresponsible,"
Reno stood firm at a hurriedly called news
conference after the vote. She said she was still reviewing the
memos, both concluding that the law requires her to seek the appointment
of a special prosecutor. She had refused in the past to take such
a step, but she said she is considering it again with "an
"I don't know whether I'm going to ask
for an independent counsel or not," Reno said. She said last
week that she wanted three more weeks to study the matter, but
there were reports last night that she is working on a 30-day
deadline, set by law.
If she decides at that point that the information
in it about possible crimes by high-level officials is both specific
and "from a credible source," she would have to order
a preliminary investigation that could take another 90 days. That
could postpone a final decision until after the fall elections.
Justice Department spokesman Bert Brandenburg
refused to comment on the reports.
Whatever the decision, Reno said, "I
simply have to draw the line and stand for what I believe to be
a very important principle: Prosecutions in America must be free
of political influence."
Her critics in Congress and elsewhere have
charged that this is the principle she has been ignoring in an
investigation that involves the man who appointed her, President
Clinton, as well as Vice President Gore and other officials explicitly
covered by the independent counsel law.
"It has been apparent from an early
point that the Independent Counsel Act requires the attorney general
to appoint an independent counsel," the Burton committee
said in a majority report recommending a contempt citation by
the full House. "The committee is responsible for ensuring
that the Department of Justice acts in a manner consistent with
the law. In this situation, the oversight interests of the Congress
are greater than the institutional policy concerns of the Department
Only two other Cabinet officers have been
cited for contempt by a full House committee. Secretary of State
Henry A. Kissinger was accused of "contumacious conduct"
in 1975 by the House intelligence committee for refusing to produce
subpoenaed records, most of them bearing on covert CIA operations,
but compromises with the administration kept the matter from reaching
the House floor.
In 1982, the House Energy and Commerce Committee
voted to cite Interior Secretary James G. Watt for withholding
documents about Canadian energy policy toward U.S. companies,
but a compromise was reached when a committee delegation inspected
Also in 1982, the House voted to hold Anne
M. Gorsuch, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, in contempt
for refusing, on President Ronald Reagan's orders, to produce
documents sought by two House committees concerning enforcement
of the hazardous waste cleanup law. The Justice Department refused
to prosecute, but Gorsuch later resigned.
Reno said she offered to brief the committee
in a public session "on the legal rationale" set forth
in the memos, but only after she has made her decision. Burton
dismissed the offer as "a nonstarter" because "the
guts" of the recommendations would not be available.
Reno said she would continue to do "our
level best to see that an accommodation is reached."
The dispute could not come up on the House
floor until September, after the summer recess.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the House
committee's ranking minority member, charged in the debate before
the vote that what Burton was doing was part "political theater"
and part "raw intimidation." Burton, Waxman noted, told
Reno last week that he would drop the contempt action if she agrees
to the appointment of an independent counsel.
"I want to remind my colleagues that
the penalty for contempt is as much as one year in jail,"
Waxman said. "Is that what we've come to? We threaten the
attorney general with jail time if she doesn't make the decisions
we want? . . . This odious threat of contempt is itself beneath
Democrats also emphasized LaBella's warnings
at a Tuesday hearing that disclosure of his 94-page memo, constituting
a "road map" of the Justice Department's work thus far,
would be "devastating" to the campaign financing investigation.
He said it should never "see the light of day because that
would just undercut what any prosecutor would do with these investigations,
whether they are an independent counsel or a Department of Justice
Republicans brushed off the attacks on Burton
as tired replays of rhetoric the Democrats used to direct at the
previous chairman, former Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.).
Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) said the committee
"would not be here" if the Freeh and LaBella recommendations
had not been leaked to reporters. He accused Reno of "prosecutorial
malpractice" for not cracking down, especially after Freeh's
recommendation became public in December.
The existence of LaBella's memo came to light
in the New York Times on July 23. LaBella said he gave a copy
to Reno on July 16 and made only two others, keeping one for himself
and giving the other to the chief FBI agent on the task force,
who gave it to Freeh.
Reno's office, the committee was told, made
nine copies that were distributed to high-ranking advisers and
discussed at a meeting Reno held on July 21.
Asked about the GOP charges that Reno or
members of her staff were responsible for the leaks, Reno said:
"Considering the pain it's caused me, that's the most ridiculous
thing I've ever heard."
While Democrats produced letters from three
former attorneys general supporting Reno, Burton drew a strong
endorsement from Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman
Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), who conducted a lengthy campaign finance
investigation last year.
"The Burton committee stands on sound
legal ground," Thompson said in a statement. "It has
offered to let all sensitive investigative matters be deleted
from the report. . . . Contempt is an unusual proceeding, but
these are unusual circumstances -- circumstances the attorney
general and the Justice Department have created."
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