Panel Steps Up Confrontation Over Campaign Finance Memos, Voting To Cite Reno For Contempt
By Sumana Chatterjee, CQ Staff Writer
Republicans on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee have picked a new fight with the Clinton administration, this time threatening Attorney General Janet Reno with contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over internal memos making the case for appointment of an independent counsel in the ongoing campaign finance probe.
Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., has demanded that Reno give the panel memos from two subordinates who urged her to appoint an independent counsel to investigate allegations of illegal fundraising in the 1996 presidential campaign.
Reno has refused, saying she has not yet made up her mind and accusing Burton of "political tampering" with her prosecutorial independence.
The panel, which has been a partisan war zone for months, voted along party lines, 24-19, on Aug. 6 to cite Reno for contempt, the first step in the process of holding an individual criminally responsible for failing to comply with an order from either the House or the Senate.
The execution of contempt citations is rare, and is ultimately decided in federal court. If the full House approves the committee's recommendation when it returns from recess, the issue would go to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia for prosecution.
Burton said that Reno is flouting the law by refusing to seek appointment of an independent counsel in the fundraising case.
"If we believe that the attorney general is not following the law, then we have to find out why," Burton said.
At a news conference after the vote, Reno said: "I simply have to draw the line and stand up for what I believe to be a very important principle: Prosecutions in America must be free of political influence. To ask for a document I am reviewing, while I have still not made a decision, is a form of political tampering that no prosecutor in America can accept."
Ranking Democrat Henry A. Waxman of California called the contempt vote "theatrics" and said Burton was trying to bully Reno into a decision that should be hers alone to make. Burton has said that he would drop the contempt citation if Reno complies with longstanding Republican demands that she move to appoint an independent counsel.
The Disputed Memos
Burton is seeking a 27-page document written in November by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and another 94-page report by Charles G. LaBella, the former head of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force.
Burton subpoenaed the two memos July 24, giving the Justice Department three days to comply. When the department refused, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., gave Burton the green light to seek contempt charges.
In an Aug. 4 hearing, both Freeh and LaBella urged the committee to accept Reno's offer for a confidential briefing in three weeks. LaBella said releasing the memos "would would be devastating to the investigations."
The contempt citation would be the first against a high-level executive since 1982, when the House cited Environmental Protection Agency chief Anne M. Burford for refusing, on President Ronald Reagan's orders, to submit documents relating to enforcement of the superfund hazardous waste law. (1982 Almanac, p. 451)
Burford resigned the following year, and the contempt citation was ultimately dropped after Reagan agreed to allow congressional committees to see the documents under strict rules of confidentiality. Similarly, other disputes between the executive and legislative branches over confidential information often have been settled through compromise.
Christopher Cox, R-Calif., a former Reagan White House associate counsel, expressed reservations about voting for contempt, saying the independent counsel statute is wrong-headed and subject to abuse. But he said the oversight responsibilities of the committee outweighed his qualms.
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