'Crisis in Confidence' Prompted Reno's Decision
By Roberto Suro
When Attorney General Janet Reno went before the Senate Judiciary Committee last spring to explain why a Justice Department task force, rather than an independent counsel, should investigate allegations of campaign fund-raising abuses, she said of the task force, "I am personally monitoring it closely and regularly. I regularly ask: Do you have enough staff, both in terms of agents and lawyers?"
On that occasion, and on many since then, Reno extolled the virtues of the "career professionals" who had served presidents of both parties and whose presence, she said, guaranteed a vigorous and unbiased investigation. Indeed, the two top officials supervising the campaign finance task force, Mark Richard and Lee Radek, each have more than 25 years of experience in the Justice Department's criminal division.
Reno's decision Tuesday to revamp the task force resulted from what one source called her "crisis in confidence" in a system she personally supervised and supported so publicly. By bringing in a top prosecutor and veteran FBI agent from outside the main Justice building to supervise the investigation, Reno is trying to "inject the task force with a more aggressive spirit," an official said.
The shake-up does not indicate Reno is caving in to criticisms, mostly by Republicans in Congress, of her refusal to seek an independent counsel to investigate fund-raising activities. Rather, officials familiar with Reno's deliberations suggested that she eventually sided with Justice Department and FBI officials who had been concerned that the task force seemed both overly cautious and unfocused.
That view gained more credibility on two recent occasions when the task force was shown to have mishandled potentially incriminating information about key figures in the case, including Vice President Gore.
Two weeks ago, Reno ordered Justice Department officials to begin a review to determine whether she should recommend appointment of an independent counsel. But before that decision, Reno had said she was comfortable dealing with career Justice Department officials whose long tenure inoculated her against charges of partisanship. But other senior officials did not share Reno's confidence, and as weeks passed without clear progress on several major issues, they began to worry that the task force effort might come to be seen as beholden to the Clinton White House.
Officials close to FBI Director Louis J. Freeh grew especially concerned that he might once again find himself whipsawed between a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, as occurred with the controversy over White House access to FBI investigative files and several other matters.
Last spring, Freeh advised Reno that he thought she had grounds to seek an independent counsel. Aside from his legal analysis of the situation, officials said Freeh spoke up because he wanted to eliminate any possibility that the bureau might face charges of partisanship.
Those concerns were reinforced this summer when FBI agents involved in the fund-raising investigation voiced complaints that the career lawyers on the Justice task force kept them on too tight a leash whenever they verged into politically sensitive territory.
To take charge of the task force in the newly created position of chief prosecutor, Reno chose Charles G. LaBella, a veteran federal prosecutor who has spent much of his career in court trying public-corruption cases, rather than on the gray second-floor corridor overlooking Constitution Avenue where the Justice Department's criminal division is headquartered.
Reno also selected James V. DeSarno Jr., a deputy assistant FBI director, to serve as special agent in charge of the task force. In picking DeSarno, Reno put an official with close ties to Freeh's inner circle in a position to help determine where the investigation is going and how fast it will move.
One key aspect of the probe remains unchanged, however. As Reno insisted repeatedly before, she personally monitored the work of the task force and she made the final decision on every occasion on whether the requirements of the Independent Counsel Act had been triggered. The cast of supporting characters changed this week, but Janet Reno alone is still in charge.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company