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Why Hasn't Janet Reno Named a Special Counsel to Investigate the Vice President?

Aired June 27, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET



JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Mr. Chairman, I don't do things based on polls. I do things based on the evidence and the law.


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, Attorney General Janet Reno in the hot seat. Senators grill her about her reluctance to name a special counsel to investigate fund raising by Al Gore. Is Gore's presidential campaign a factor in her decision-making?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the crossfire, Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, and Republican Senator Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania, chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee investigating the Justice Department.

MATALIN: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE. Attorney General Janet Reno testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee today defended her decision to drag her feet on the third hand-packed Department of Justice staff recommendation to investigate Al Gore's 1996 fund raising.

Republicans charged Reno has an inherent conflict of interest. Democrats defended the embattled attorney general, pointing out her multiple Clinton administration investigations. While Janet Reno remained cool throughout her grueling grilling, the Gore campaign got overheated, repeatedly attacking the Judiciary Committee chairman, one of our guests tonight, who needless to say was not pleased.

Meanwhile, even scandal weary voters now favor a special counsel for Al Gore by a five-point plurality.

So tonight, election-year wrangling: Is Janet Reno protecting the vice president? Are the Republicans practicing partisan skullduggery? And after four years, don't voters have a right, for better or worse, to get to the bottom of this endless issue?

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, let me start with that last reference, the press secretary to Al Gore attacking Senator Specter for being -- practicing McCarthy-like tactics. I presume that you don't agree with that? Or do you? Let me just ask you: Do you agree with Chris Lehane's characterization of your colleague?

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE (D-TX), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Well, I think all of us have the responsibility for oversight, members of the United States Congress, but I do think we stretch our responsibilities by innuendo, rumor and leaking.

I think the American people are owed the commitment of the right decision to be made either by the United States Congress or the attorney general if we believe that rules or laws have been violated. In this instance, we have the same approach that Ken Starr used, and that is seek, search and destroy.

I believe that there is obviously no evidence or there's no evidence to suggest that the attorney general is in any way not doing her job if a special counsel is not appointed. We certainly will abide by her decision.

But the special counsel requires, one, to determine or a determination to be made that a criminal act has occurred; two, that there is conflict; and three, that it is in the public interest. And frankly, I think that we have aired this Buddhist incident and these allegations over and over again.

I applaud the vice president for sharing his testimony so that all of us can read, no matter what position we may have, but frankly, I think if the American people understood what the special counsel's criteria is, they would also believe that the attorney general would be making the decision, however it comes out. She makes the decision on the facts, and that's the end of it.

MATALIN: All right, congresswoman, we have not aired this. The Justice Department, the FBI never asked the vice president until April 18th about the Buddhist temple incident. But I want to get back to the behavior of the Gore campaign, since you're charging Republicans, I guess, even though this came out of the Justice Department, with partisan and political tactics.

Listen now to what Chris Lehane, press secretary to Vice President Gore, had to say about Senator Specter.


CHRIS LEHANE, GORE SPOKESMAN: Senator Specter's tactics last night reeked of McCarthyism, that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) GOP chicanery, political skullduggery, Republican dirty tricks. It was so unusual for a Republican senator to make an announcement about a Justice Department issue.



SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I do not take lightly the comments of the vice president's surrogates accusing me of McCarthy-like tactics and being in cahoots with the Bush campaign.


MATALIN: Now, let me ask you again, congresswoman, because after Chris said that, then the senator responded. The Gore campaign put out another statement recharging the senator with McCarthy-like tactics and saying he was trying to cover up for Bush: Bush, whose oil contributors and business community contributions from Texas were on the front page of "The New York Times."

What is the coverup and isn't this the politics of personal destruction that everyone seems to suggest that they abhor, but the Gore campaign is practicing every day?

JACKSON LEE: Well, I'm glad you noted the Gore campaign and surrogates. It is not the words of the vice president. And might I say that I speak for myself as well. I believe that we have the right to have judicial oversight, oversight of the judicial or the legal system as members of the United States Congress. I do not adhere to the tactics that are used as well to undermine.

It might be the responsibility in this very tense and heightened political process of presidential politics that someone might argue that we should investigate the allegations of behavior against Governor Bush with respect to drug usage.

This is a very volatile time, and I think that all of us e should be restrained to do our responsibilities and tasks away from as much as we can the glare of presidential politics.

So I don't hold the vice president to the remarks of his surrogates, and I am not certainly supporting such remarks. I do believe that we should allow the attorney general to make an independent determination as to whether a special counsel should be appointed, and I believe there are no grounds, because I believe in fact that there are no -- there's no evidence of criminal activity. And that's the first criteria, that you have to have evidence that there was a crime committed, and I don't see what that is.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Senator Specter, thank you for joining us. Let me ask you, senator. I think, in any administration, we expect investigations of the Justice Department to be conducted objectively and fairly. How can the American people believe that this current investigation is objective and fair when its conclusions were leaked to you and announced by you to the American people?

SPECTER: Well, the man, Mr. Conrad, who is in charge of the campaign task force, was called before the subcommittee last Wednesday, and we asked him the question and he declined to comment. And the law's plain that Senate oversight may cover pending matters. There's no doubt about that.

We had a long lapse between the time that FBI Director Freeh recommended independent counsel and the time it was disclosed, and the time LaBella recommended independent counsel. And I believe there needs to be public accountability. And it's not as if the Conrad disclosure came out of the blue.

This is a matter of we've been working on for months, really for years.

PRESS: Well, senator, he had declined to answer that question in front of your committee, because he hadn't made his final recommendation to the attorney general. But I'd ask you to step back: You're a fair man, senator. I mean, if this were a Republican administration and Justice Department -- inside information from the Justice Department were being announced by some Democratic senator, you would be the first one to cry foul, senator. Don't you see why people are concerned about how this all came about?

SPECTER: Well, the recommendation was final. You're not correct when you say that the recommendation was not final. It is a routine matter when hearings are held, when I chair the Intelligence Committee, for example, the ranking member and I, or I would make disclosures which we thought were appropriate. And I think the American people have a right to know what that recommendation was.

The Justice Department will sit on it interminably, and I think their needs to be public accountability. And I did it right out in the open.

PRESS: Well, senator, your view on this seems to have changed. Back in 1989, there was an investigation ongoing in the Justice Department about -- concerning Democratic Congressman Bill Gray from Pennsylvania, and there was a leak at that time from the justice -- to someone in the Justice Department. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing. Attorney General Thornburgh came up in front of that hearing. That was on June 2nd, 1989. And here, you told his this, senator.

Quote: "You talked about firing people, which I think is a good start when you know who has made the unauthorized disclosure."

You were for firing people who leaked back then, senator. Do you think the person who leaked this to you ought to be fired?

SPECTER: Well, that's a matter within the Justice Department.

PRESS: But what do you think, senator? Do you think the person ought to be fired? Are you consistent now?

SPECTER: I do not think the person ought to be fired, and there's a big distinction on what was involved with Congressman Gray, who was an individual -- it was a bolt out of the blue -- contrasted with this issue of independent counsel, which has been going on for more than three years.

I first started questioning the attorney general about this back on April of 1997, and our subcommittee was in the midst of an ongoing investigation. And the fact is that the people who watched what is going on inside the Department of Justice are just furious about -- about what is happening. And whistle-blowers happen in our society and in our government all the time.

PRESS: So leaks are OK now but they weren't OK then?

SPECTER: Well, I just made the distinction. I could repeat it for you.

PRESS: Mary.

MATALIN: Let's go, congresswoman, if you would, to Al Gore's transcripts from that April 18th chat with the FBI about the Buddhist temple event. He said -- and I quote -- "I sure as hell don't recall having, I sure as hell did not have any conversations with anyone saying this is a fund-raising event."

Now, subsequent documents suggested, or didn't suggest, showed unequivocally that at least seven offices, including his own, knew it was a fund-raiser, that he himself referred to the events of that day in a personal e-mail as fund-raisers, that attendees at the fund- raiser said that fund raising was discussed from the lectern in the presence of the vice president.

This is what gave the FBI and the Department of Justice investigators pause, that these documents and subsequent testimony conflicted or contradicted the vice president's statements. Isn't that what should trigger an investigation? It's not saying he's lying. It's just saying you've got contradictory evidence here.

JACKSON LEE: Let me tell you what's unfortunate about this whole discussion and the timing. We're in the midst of presidential politics. This smells. Frankly, I believe it is important for the American people to know the facts. We know that the attorney general has not shied away from previously appointing an independent counsel. Now she has the structure of the special counsel. She's appointed independent counsel to investigate issues in the past.

Frankly, I believe that as she reviews this she'll make her own determination. But the question is the element of appointing a special counsel. There's no evidence of criminal activity or criminal act.

Clearly, many of us travel to many different places, and we give speeches, and at the end of it there's a possibility of them passing the hat.

Yes, it is very plausible that the vice president was not aware of the fact that it was in fact a fund-raiser. Yes, funds were raised. But the question is, does she determine -- the attorney general -- that any criminal activity occurred? Is it warranted out of or through the special counsel structure?

I believe that if we begin this kind of witch hunt at this time, we taint the presidential elections, we disallow the American public to make their own choices.

We can begin looking under the skirt-tails or pants-legs of both of the candidates or all of the candidates, and begin to call out the special counsel for a variety of reasons or an investigations (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for a variety of reasons.

MATALIN: No, no. The investigation...


MATALIN: Congresswoman, here's the criminal -- here's the criminal question. Providing false testimony to the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- that is what the task force chairman was saying should be investigated. That is potentially criminal. Maybe he'll be exonerated, but that's what the issue is. Not what he did but what he said about what he did.

JACKSON LEE: Well, I think we need to go back to the comments of Mr. Conrad, who indicated that he found no criminal wrongdoing or he was not speaking to criminal wrongdoing. He was only speaking to the issue of conflict of those whose jobs are owed to the administration who may not be able to investigate. So I still think there's an open question on this issue.

We will abide by the decision of the attorney general, but I think the elements are not there or in the public interest, or whether or not there is any determination of a criminal act.

PRESS: All right. We're going to take a short break, congresswoman, senator. When we come back, let's pick up right there. What new evidence is there? What new evidence has been put on the table to merit a special counsel? Get to that when we come back.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Once again, Janet Reno is called before Congress to defend her reluctance to name a special counsel to look into fund-raising practices in the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. Twice before she said no. Is there new evidence this time to convince her to change her mind or are these just recycled election-year charges?

Weighing in on Janet Reno tonight, Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, member of the House Judiciary Committee. She's from Texas. And Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee investigating the Justice Department.

Senator, let me ask you just briefly what's new. What new evidence do you know that we didn't know before that this time should trigger a special counsel investigation?

SPECTER: There have been some new evidentiary matters as a result of questioning of the vice president on April 18th. But a point that I brought out at the hearings today is that they have questioned the vice president four times before and have not asked him anything about the Buddhist temple, have not asked him anything about the coffees. And I raised the point that the attorney general should have acted long ago to clear the matter up one way or another, and that it may be too late now. It may well be too late the to appoint an independent counsel, because right now, if independent counsel were appointed, that counsel could not make a determination before the nominating convention, as I said in the open hearings today.

And her failure to act in the past, not asking questions about the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple, where they questioned him four times before, but the recommendation by Mr. Conrad came out of this new round of questioning.

PRESS: You say it may be too late, senator. Are you saying therefore that Janet Reno should not appoint a special counsel because it would interfere with this election-year process?

SPECTER: Well, I asked the question and raised the issue as to whether special counsel could be appointed and have a decision before the nominating convention. I don't really think that's possible or whether it could even be handled before the election. So that we have this major question which is out there. It's been raised again as a result of their order, questioning of the vice president recently.

PRESS: Now I want to come back to the evidence here, because we do know and it's been shown -- and I read the transcript, by the way, senator. I didn't see any new evidence. We know that the briefing papers that the vice president had that day did not identify this as a fund-raiser. His schedule did not identify it as a fund-raiser. There were no invitations sent out to this fund-raiser. No one around the vice president has testified that he told the vice president, he or she, that this was a fund-raiser. And there's been already an investigation by the Justice Department twice, by Senator Thompson's committee, by Congressman Burton's committee.

And one of your colleagues today, Senator Torricelli, showed just what we found out after all of that. I'm going to remind you what Senator Torricelli had to say today. Please.


SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI (D-NJ), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: The only paper before the vice president of the United States was instruction that he was to extend brief remarks from the podium and exit, take photos with 150 guests, pay homage in the shrine.

This is a fund-raiser? This is leading the vice president of the United States to solicit funds? $11 million later, Mr. Chairman, this is what our committee found.


PRESS: Specifically, senator, what new evidence of criminal activity do you know that you can tell us about?

SPECTER: The evidence showed that there were e-mails to the vice president identifying the events on that day as fund-raisers. There were e-mails back from the vice president. There were memoranda coming from Ickes which denominated it as a fund-raiser: first, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) raising $250,000, and secondly, $325,000. There was evidence the two speakers at the podium talked about raising money. So there has been evidence of fund raising.

Our hearing also focused on the failure of the attorney general to acknowledge evidence which went back to the hard-soft money distinction. This hearing was scheduled long before Mr. Conrad's recommendation, and the hearing did focus on the advice of counsel defense, which the FBI general counsel poked full of holes. And the attorney general was really unable to respond, I thought, to what the FBI general counsel had to say that the advice of counsel defense was not valid.

MATALIN: OK, congressman, can I raise the issue that you raised in the last segment raised by Senator Hatch today? And that's the issue of the conflict, the inherent conflict for Attorney General Janet Reno. Let's listen to what Senator Hatch had to say.


SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R-UT), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: When investigating allegations against the president and vice president, the attorney general is inherently conflicted, and any decision she may render in these matters will not inspire the public's confidence. This is particularly true of any decision not to prosecute.


MATALIN: Do you know the president and the attorney general said when reauthorizing the independent statute law that -- or independent counsel statute that it was a venue for exoneration? The vice president said the truth is his friend. Yet we're all still hub- bubbing about this as long as we have. Wouldn't it restore public confidence and exonerate the vice president to just go ahead and get that conflict, that political hot potato out of the Department of Justice?

JACKSON LEE: Well, as you know, the independent counsel statute has sunsetted and I think the American people have gotten their full of that kind of approach. But I believe that the previous comments about contrary evidence of whether he knew there was a fund-raiser, whether he didn't know there was a fund-raiser is clearly on the point.

There is no criminal suggestion of action by the vice president of the United States, and a special counsel determination with the privilege of the attorney general is based upon whether it's warranted because of criminal activity, whether, yes, there is a conflict of public interest.

And I believe the attorney general in her wisdom can make a determination that, one, there's no evidence of criminal infraction, and as well, this is not in the public interest.

And so the idea of a conflict doesn't -- begs the question, because, frankly, I think that she would make the determination if warranted.

MATALIN: We've got to end that here. We have a conflict. Thank you, Senator Specter. Thank you, Congresswoman Lee.

Bill and I will be right back with our closing comments on CROSSFIRE. Stay with us.


MATALIN: You know, Bush is leading the vice president by 12 points on trustworthiness. The vice president would restore confidence in government, not to mention some confidence in his campaign -- if he has nothing to hide, go for it.

PRESS: You know, Mary, I think you're starting to believe your own polls, and that's dangerous. But let me just tell you something: You just heard it from Arlen Specter himself, the ring leader in this thing, who says she didn't do it then and it's probably too late for her to do it now because there's not time enough between now and the national convention. And I say we ought to take Arlen Specter's advice, drop this thing, and praise Janet Reno, by the way, for being the most independent person in this whole town. I wish there were more like her.

MATALIN: And then encourage public official to provide false testimony to the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

PRESS: You accuses it of being false. You have no evidence of it being false.

MATALIN: No, that's the FBI saying that.

PRESS: Accusation is not evidence.

MATALIN: FBI is saying that.

PRESS: Baloney.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: And from the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again tomorrow for more CROSSFIRE.



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