Reno Defends Decision On Campaign Finance Probe
GOP senators again press her to seek an independent counsel
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, July 15) -- Attorney General Janet Reno came under renewed, pointed criticism Wednesday from a Senate panel over her decision not to seek an independent counsel to probe campaign finance abuses during the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election effort.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, opened the session by reiterating his support for the appointment of an independent counsel and accusing the Department of Justice of a lax investigation into the fund-raising mess.
Hatch said it is "more clear than ever" that Reno must seek an independent counsel. He said it appears Justice has only been able to pursue the most conspicuous Democratic contributors accused of wrongdoing, but comes up empty in determining the complicity of officials in the Clinton Administration or the Democratic National Committee.
Hatch also criticized Reno for failing to defend Independent Counsel Ken Starr against the attacks of Clinton supporters and of supporting an appeal in the Secret Service's "protective function privilege" legal case.
Hatch said there are legitimate questions about whether the Secret Service personnel should be compelled to testify in the Monica Lewinsky inquiry, but it is for the Congress, not the courts, to create such a privilege.
The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), defended Reno, though, accusing Republicans of trying to shift attention away from Justice Department's accomplishments and a crime rate that has fallen six years in a row.
"We ought to be praising that," not beating up the attorney general, Leahy said.
Leahy said he disagreed that Reno should be out defending what he called "the missteps and screw-ups" of Starr, noting that Starr employs his own public relations specialists to do that.
'A double standard'
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) pressed Reno on why she sought an independent counsel to investigate influence-peddling allegations against Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, despite spotty evidence of wrongdoing, but has resisted an independent counsel for the campaign finance controversy.
Specter offered up a series of charts, showing donations from indicted contributors to the Clinton-Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
"If there ever was a double standard, this is it," Specter said. He said there is an "overwhelming body of evidence" about White House involvement in campaign finance abuses.
"Only the contributors are indicted," Specter told Reno. "What about the recipients?"
But Reno reiterated that she must go on all the evidence and information she has, and if the independent counsel act is triggered by credible evidence of crimes by high officials, she will seek such an appointment.
"I see a chart, but I've got an awful lot of evidence and information other than that chart, and I've got to take it where it leads me," Reno said.
She noted the Federal Election Commission is examining whether candidates or parties misused so-called "soft money" in 1996, and the agency will refer the matter to Justice if it believes crimes were committed.
"And if it triggers the independent counsel act, I will do so," Reno said.
Hatch drew a sharp response from Reno after he read from an editorial
in Wednesday's New York Times which suggested Reno's chief legacy as attorney general could be "the preservation of a cover-up."
"I don't do things based on editorials," Reno said. "I don't do things based on pressure." Hatch told her she was misreading the independent counsel act and urged her to revisit the issue.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't revisit the statute and revisit the issue," Reno said.
Not all of the Judiciary's oversight session focused on Starr or campaign finance. Senators questioned Reno and her deputy, Eric Holder, on the recent spate of school shootings, domestic violence, drug-trafficking and other issues, too.