LaBella Senate appearance yields casual chat, no new campaign finance information
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Justice Department prosecutor Charles LaBella, the man whose report on alleged Clinton-Gore campaign finance improprieties sparked an outcry on Capitol Hill, told a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday that he stood by his work -- work that he cordially refused to detail for panel members.
The former Justice Department investigator told the Senate Judiciary Administrative Oversight and Courts Subcommittee during a morning hearing that he was hesitant to go into any detail about the evidence he had collected for his July 1998 report on financial irregularities within the 1996 Clinton campaign.
For the most part, the subcommittee honored LaBella's insistence that the subject be discussed only superficially.
LaBella, the onetime head of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force, recommended to Attorney General Janet Reno that a special prosecutor be appointed to delve into of a series of campaign finance allegations leveled against the 1996 re-election campaign of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
The Justice Department launched its preliminary investigation in the summer of 1997. The probe looked into a series related and seemingly unrelated instances, including possible illegal donations made to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) by operatives for the People's Republic of China; fund-raising calls made from the White House by Gore; Gore's appearance at an illegal fund-raiser held at a California Buddhist temple; and the transfer of sensitive communications equipment to China by U.S. firms.
Reno opted not to appoint a special prosecutor after hearing from LaBella and others. It was widely reported that during the deliberations process, FBI Director Louis Freeh fell in behind LaBella, and urged Reno to find an independent counsel.
In early March, The Los Angeles Times broke details of the subsequent report drafted by LaBella in 1998, and a series of internal documents that accused senior Justice Department officials of "gamesmanship," and legal "contortions" to avoid a deeper probe into the Clinton-Gore campaign's conduct.
In his report, the newspaper said, Reno and the people who advised her not to appoint a special prosecutor made "intellectually dishonest" decisions that protected the president, the vice president, and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
LaBella stands pat
Speaking to the sparsely attended Senate subcommittee on Tuesday, LaBella, under oath, told members he stood by his report and his career, but he felt it entirely inappropriate to divulge any details about the evidence he had at his disposal when he recommended the appointment of an investigator, nor would he describe the deliberative processes that led him to his conclusions.
"I'm flying by my own lights, I'm my own moral compass," a confident LaBella told the three Republicans and one Democrat who showed up for Tuesday's hearing. LaBella said he had not consulted with the department -- by whom he is no longer employed -- prior to his appearance, and the department "did not want to be perceived as trying to shape and mold my testimony."
Sen. Arlen Specter
Still, despite the L.A. Times report and later Justice Department denials that Reno had treated anyone more favorably than they deserved, LaBella insisted Tuesday that some of his report's most vital information had not been made public, even when temporary subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), mused out loud that all had been revealed.
"No, it hasn't," LaBella relied curtly. "What is not public record is my analysis and piecing together of evidence."
"Some people do not want this to come out because circumstantially, it's very powerful," LaBella continued.
One of the people who may not want the information to come out, LaBella intimated, might be former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, whose handiwork, LaBella said Tuesday, could be traced through a series of ongoing investigations.
"I concluded that ... with respect to the evidence that [Ickes'] conduct warranted that the attorney general appoint an independent counsel," LaBella said. "He was somebody who made cameo appearances in a number of investigations."
"[Ickes] functioned as a coordinator at the DNC during the 'critical years,'" LaBella offered, only adding that Ickes may have overseen "budgetary" matters. He offered no further detail, and staunchly refused to make any revelations about Clinton or Gore.
He did say, however, that had he his druthers when running the probe, he would have sought felony charges against many involved for gross violations of campaign finance law.
"I would have chosen felonies because it sends a message that we take these things seriously," he said. "Prosecutors view misdemeanors as an escape hatch, a way out.
"We needed to show that this was serious conduct," he continued. "If you violate this conduct it goes to the integrity of our electoral process."
But LaBella offered a kinder assessment of the choices made by Reno when pressed by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, who acted as the subcommittee's ranking member for the proceedings.
LaBella said Reno "made no decisions to protect anyone."
"She listened to the advice of certain people and decided to follow that advice," he said.
As for his work, LaBella said he has since chosen to move on. He worked for some time as a U.S. Attorney in San Diego following his efforts in the campaign finance task force, then left the Justice Department altogether in February of 1999.
"I recommended an independent counsel, and the attorney general disagreed," he said. "I took my shots and moved on."