No Settlement In Independent Counsel Dispute
Reno briefs lawmakers on campaign-finance inquiry
By Terry Frieden/CNN
|Sen. Patrick Leahy, Attorney General|
Janet Reno and Sen. Orrin Hatch
WASHINGTON (Sept. 2) -- In a closed-door, face-to-face meeting, Attorney General Janet Reno refused Wednesday to tell key Republican lawmakers her intentions on seeking an independent counsel. Several legislators have demanded she request such an appointment to investigate Democratic fund-raising practices.
Reno and several top Justice Department officials met for 2 1/2 hours with three top GOP committee chairmen and two ranking Democrats. Reno has repeatedly rebuffed Republican claims that she has a conflict of interest in investigating her boss, President Bill Clinton, and therefore must appoint an independent counsel to probe allegations of campaign finance abuses primarily by Democrats in the 1996 election campaign.
Afterward, Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Reno's refusal to seek an independent counsel has "now passed the point of reasonableness."
Hatch said Reno offered "vague, insufficient and or unconvincing" answers on why she has not yet sought an independent counsel.
Under the independent counsel law, Hatch said, the threshold is whether a crime may have been committed, but Reno reads the law as requiring the evidence show without a doubt that a crime has been committed.
"This standard is way too high," Hatch said on the Senate floor. "By setting up these legal standards, she basically has required that a smoking gun walk in the doors of the Justice Department before she'll do anything in this matter."
Indiana Rep. Dan Burton also expressed strong
dissatisfaction with Reno's position afterward. Burton said that after viewing
portions of a key memo his committee had demanded, "I am more convinced than
before that Miss Reno is protecting the president and the vice president."
Burton is chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight
Committee, which has voted to cite Reno for contempt of Congress for failing to
turn over a memo Reno received from Charles LaBella, the former head of the
Justice Department's campaign finance task force.
In that memo, LaBella
privately urged Reno to appoint an independent counsel for a broad-based
investigation of alleged campaign finance abuses in the 1996 elections.
Justice Department officials said Reno characterized the meeting as
"constructive," but did not expect a resolution of her differences with the
Republican demands for an independent counsel.
Justice sources say Reno's decision to provide each lawmaker at the
meeting with a copy of substantial portions of LaBella's memo was a major
step taken to satisfy GOP demands that she turn over the report to them. The
officials say they hope the move puts to rest the dispute over access to it.
Burton acknowledged that he and other lawmakers were provided versions of
LaBella's memo with extensive redactions in which sensitive material was
crossed out. Burton said he found the memo "helpful" in that he was able to
better understanding LaBella's reasons for his views. But the GOP chairman said
he would have to consult with other committee members before deciding whether
to move the contempt citation to the full House floor for a vote.
Burton's Democratic counterpart on the panel, Rep. Henry Waxman of California, told reporters he
was "hopeful" the committee would not take the issue to the full House, and
predicted it would not pass if it were voted upon.
Waxman said Reno told the lawmakers she would make her decision on whether
to seek an independent counsel at the "appropriate time."
|Rep. Dan Burton|
Hatch, who called the meeting, did say afterward there was progress on the contempt dispute.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois also refused immediate comment on the meeting.
Reno, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder and other key Justice Department
officials also refused any comment. Among Justice officials who attended
were LaBella, lead FBI task force investigator James DeSarno and Justice
Department lawyer Lee Radek, who has been widely identified as a leading
opponent of an independent counsel appointment.
Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson declined to attend the confidential briefing.
Thompson (R-Tenn.) said he would not attend because he could not abide by an agreement not to discuss the contents of the meeting in public.
Thompson, in a written statement, said he had no objections to the
deletions of grand jury material, but claimed there was no valid reason for
keeping confidential the redacted version of the memos and no basis for keeping
their legal theories and arguments secret from the general public except to
reduce the embarrassment of the attorney general.
Looking at Ickes
On Tuesday, Reno announced a limited 90-day investigation of former senior White House aide Harold Ickes. The investigation will try to
determine if Ickes committed perjury before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee during its hearing on the possible influx of illegal overseas contributions to the Democrats. The investigation could lead to the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate alleged Democratic fund-raising abuses.
Ickes, the former deputy White House chief of staff, has denied any wrongdoing.
Reno did not outline the specific allegations, but sources tell CNN they center around whether the White House intervened in Teamster labor disputes in exchange for campaign donations. Ickes played a key role in the Clinton-Gore re-election bid.
In particular, investigators have targeted one Ickes response to a deposition question involving a California company, Diamond Walnut. Diamond Walnut was engaged in a labor dispute with the Teamsters in 1996.
In the deposition, Ickes was asked what did the administration do regarding the Diamond Walnut strike. His response was "Nothing that I know of."
But an Ickes aide told the committee a different story, saying Ickes had requested that she follow up with then-U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor on the Diamond Walnut issue.
CNN's Pierre Thomas and Janet Moore contributed to this report.