Reno Assailed for Rejecting Independent Counsel
By Guy Gugliotta
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) yesterday denounced Attorney General Janet Reno for ignoring "what is plainly in our nation's best interest" by refusing to seek the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate fund-raising abuses in the 1996 Clinton presidential campaign.
Hatch dismissed Reno's explanation for not appointing an independent counsel as "too clever by half," suggesting she interpreted the statute allowing for such an appointment narrowly to protect the Clinton administration.
"In all candor, the substance of the attorney general's report is vague, ambiguous at best, and, at times, legally disingenuous," Hatch said in a speech on the Senate floor. "The attorney general did not receive our request with a mind fully open to doing what is plainly in our nation's best interest."
Reno on Monday released a 10-page letter outlining her reasons for not recommending appointment of an independent counsel. The letter was a response to a Republican request last month for an independent counsel. It prompted an outpouring of Republican outrage that continued yesterday.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) branded Reno's decision as "something you might have expected from [then-Attorney General] John Mitchell in 1973." His comparison to Mitchell, who served 19 months in prison after he was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice and conspiracy for his role in the Watergate scandal, prompted a sharp response by President Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).
"That cries out for an answer," the president said when asked about the comment while unveiling a new commemorative Jackie Robinson coin in New York. "She had to make a legal decision on a legal question. . . . It should not be a political matter. It should be a legal matter. That's the way everybody ought to leave it." Daschle sarcastically dismissed Gingrich, who has agreed to pay $300,000 for violating House rules, as "the guru of ethics," whose remarks bordered "on unethical behavior."
Instead of jumping into this conflict, Hatch, a leading critic of questionable Clinton campaign practices and an avid student of the justice system, prepared a careful critique of Reno's arguments. He said Reno had produced a "carefully finessed" document that ignored the breadth of available information to focus only on evidence that made her case for leaving the investigation in charge of career Justice Department lawyers.
Reno said an independent counsel was unnecessary in part because no "specific and credible allegations" had arisen implicating President Clinton, Vice President Gore or other high administration officials in any illegal activity. She cited as examples and dismissed them reports that administration officials had solicited funds on federal property and that Gore had made fund-raising calls in the White House.
But Hatch criticized Reno's "summary conclusion," saying she had "utterly failed" to respond to "each matter before her." Why, for example had she not discussed allegations that the administration had diverted "the Lincoln Bedroom and other areas of the White House, Air Force One and the White House data base" to campaign purposes?
"An authority higher than me and more independent than the attorney general needs to determine the scope of the various laws implicated by this conduct, and whether any of these laws were violated," Hatch said.
Hatch also disputed Reno's explanation that "no conflict of interest" would ensue from the Justice Department's current investigation. He described questionable activities by several people under investigation, among them former Commerce Department official and fund-raiser John Huang, who "made 78 visits to the White House" and "received 37 intelligence briefings," but ending up having to return $1.6 million of the $3.4 million he raised for the Democratic National Committee because it came from questionable sources.
"In my opinion, Attorney General Reno was presented with an ethical question a question ultimately of whether the public can have confidence in this investigation," Hatch said. "This is not a happy day for the Department of Justice."
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