House Panel Braces For Reno Contempt Vote
By Terry Frieden/CNN
WASHINGTON (Aug. 5) -- Barring an unexpected breakthrough, Attorney General Janet Reno is expected to be cited by a House committee Thursday for contempt of Congress.
At issue is Reno's refusal to honor a subpoena demanding the release of two Justice Department memos urging her to call for an independent counsel in the campaign finance probe.
CNN has learned Justice Department efforts Wednesday to reach a compromise failed, setting the stage for a bitter partisan debate and a straight party-line vote Thursday morning.
House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton has set a 10 a.m. EDT "business meeting" at which all fellow Republican members are apparently set to support a contempt citation.
Burton has ordered Reno to hand over confidential documents in which FBI Director Louis Freeh and outgoing campaign finance task force supervisor Charles LaBella have urged Reno to appoint an independent counsel.
Rep. Dan Burton
Reno is backed by Freeh, LaBella and other top Justice and FBI officials in her refusal to produce the letters, citing potential damage to an ongoing criminal investigation.
Justice officials contacted Burton's staff members Wednesday, again offering a closed-door oral briefing on the memos and agreeing to bring the documents to read relevant portions, if necessary. Committee sources say the offer failed to meet Burton's minimal demands.
"He's got to have something in writing," a Burton spokesman told CNN.
Democrats, led by Rep. Henry Waxman of California, blasted Burton at a hearing Tuesday when he announced plans to pursue the contempt of Congress motion. The outnumbered Democrats expect to clamor against the citation again Thursday before the vote.
The committee's contempt citation against the attorney general increases the pressure for Reno to produce the disputed documents, but brings no sanctions pending a full House vote on the issue. House members have indicated such a vote would come in September at the earliest.
Longtime observers note a committee vote seldom actually leads to a contempt of Congress citation by the full House of Representatives. In the past 25 years congressional committees have cited presidential cabinet members with contempt on seven occasions.
Only one cabinet official, President Ronald Reagan's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Director Anne Gorsuch Burford, was cited for contempt by the full House. Even in that case, the House rescinded the order when Burford complied with the subpoena.
In Reno's case, the issue may never come to the House floor because she has agreed to meet with the House and Senate Judiciary Committee chairmen, Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Henry Hyde, in three weeks.
Reno promised Hatch and Hyde she would review LaBella's detailed analysis of the investigation which recommends an independent counsel. She said she would then brief the two key lawmakers, providing an oral summation and advise them of her position on seeking an outside counsel.
Hatch and Hyde have also demanded the memos, but have not to date indicated support for the contempt motion. The late August meeting may take the steam out of any move to cite Reno.
Even if Reno maintains her position against appointment of an independent counsel, and the full House votes a contempt citation, legal sanctions may never be brought against the attorney general.
By law the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia can refer the matter to a grand jury, or as is more likely, defer action to the attorney general.
Because Reno would recuse herself from acting in a case where she is accused, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder would be called upon to act. Justice officials say if this scenario is played out Holder could trigger the independent counsel statute, and after a preliminary inquiry, conclude there is no Justice Department practice of pursuing such prosecutions.
Finally, in the most remote of all possibilities, a jury could clear Reno of any wrongdoing. In a rare case in which prosecution was pursued, former EPA official Rita Lavelle was charged with contempt of Congress, but a Washington D.C. jury promptly cleared her of the charge.