Extension Granted in Herman Probe
By Roberto Suro
Attorney General Janet Reno gained a 60-day extension yesterday for a Justice Department investigation into allegations that Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman accepted illegal funds in an influence-peddling scheme while she served as a Clinton White House aide.
Reno is determining whether the appointment of an independent counsel is warranted. Under the procedures of the Independent Counsel Act, the attorney general can seek such extensions when investigators have failed to find any evidence of wrongdoing but still have further work to do before a case can be completed.
The investigation is focusing on claims that Herman used her influence as director of the White House office of public liaison to assist a longtime friend and former business partner, Vanessa Weaver, and then benefited financially. Herman sold her consulting firm to Weaver after joining the Clinton administration following the 1992 election. After the sale, Herman allegedly took money for helping Weaver find clients and aiding her clients in dealing with the federal government on matters such as a license for a satellite communications project.
"Voluminous records needed for a complete review of these allegations were not received until late in the preliminary investigation," Reno said in the formal request for an extension that was presented to the special panel of three federal judges that oversees the independent counsel process. The judges granted the extension.
Herman's attorney, Neil Eggleston, denied any misconduct and said in a statement yesterday, "The secretary recognized that the attorney general needs to conduct a careful and complete evaluation of this matter . . . and has every faith that the Justice Department will shortly close this matter."
The Justice Department has already spent 90 days on its preliminary investigation of Herman's business dealings with Weaver. If investigators find evidence that indicates the need for a full-blown criminal probe, Reno must seek appointment of an independent counsel. Unless investigators find the basis for an independent counsel probe by the time the extension runs out May 11, Reno will have to drop the matter.
In her petition to the court, Reno said, "New information recently received requires additional inquiry and further analysis." Sources familiar with the probe said this refers to newly obtained financial records.
Herman has been questioned by investigators and cooperated by turning over documents and will continue to do so if further questions arise, Eggleston said.
The allegations against Herman were brought primarily by Laurent Yene, an African businessman who shared a business with Weaver while Herman was working in the White House, and who has been feuding with Weaver in recent years. Justice Department officials said that substantial questions have been raised about Yene's credibility and motives. Yene could not be located for comment yesterday.
In media interviews Yene has alleged that he delivered cash to Herman at her home and has claimed to have given federal investigators documents that he says show that he and Weaver agreed to pay Herman 10 percent of any profit their company derived from business that Herman helped set up for them.
Both Herman and Weaver have denied the allegations and have contradicted Yene's accounts of events, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
Yene first raised these allegations last year when Herman was nominated, and the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee examined them in part. Yene gave extensive media interviews at the time, but he did not allege then that Herman had sold her influence for money. Since then Weaver has sued Yene for misappropriating funds from their business and Yene has escalated his accusations against Herman.
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