How Reno Has Set Focus of Probe
By Roberto Suro
Describing how the Justice Department has handled the campaign finance scandal, Attorney Janet Reno said recently, "I think it is important, when there is an investigation underway, to do it not in terms of some big blob but in terms of the evidence and the law."
In the past few weeks, Reno has done a great deal to dissect the blob, and as a practical matter she has limited what her prosecutors and investigators can do on a day-to-day basis to further investigate alleged fund-raising abuses by President Clinton and Vice President Gore, at least for the moment.
Reno has opened separate inquiries under the Independent Counsel Act regarding Clinton and Gore, but they are restricted to the question of whether either made illegal telephone solicitations from White House offices. Otherwise, Clinton and Gore are temporarily insulated from many other allegations, and, strangely, they have some of their most devoted political foes to thank for that.
On Friday, Reno rejected a request from congressional Republicans that she request appointment of an independent counsel to investigate a variety of allegations against Clinton and Gore, including bribery and misuse of campaign funds. In doing so, Reno said investigators had no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the president and vice president in several of the most controversial aspects of the 1996 reelection campaign. Rather than expanding the inquiry as the Republicans sought, Reno used the occasion to offer a measure of absolution.
For example, Reno said no information had been discovered to show that Clinton or Gore had broken laws in connection with White House coffees and overnights or the funneling of illegal campaign contributions from foreign nationals to the Democratic National Committee. But that was before the White House turned over videotapes of 44 fund-raising events this weekend.
Although these findings will affect the scope of the Justice Department's investigation in the short term, they are not declarations of innocence or formal decisions not to prosecute the allegations in question. Rather, they are a response to a partisan effort to prompt an independent counsel investigation.
Also, Reno's statements only reflect the state of play as of last Friday afternoon. In April, Reno rejected a similar Republican request for an independent counsel to investigate Gore's phone calls, but in September after new information came to light she initiated the independent counsel process on that issue and took another step Friday by ordering a preliminary investigation into the vice president's solicitations.
Last week, Reno was reacting to a 23-page letter from 20 Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee led by Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.). The letter supported its allegations by citing hundreds of news stories. Many of the articles made no mention of Clinton or Gore, and most did not raise allegations of criminal conduct.
Rather than evidence of wrongdoing, the news reports were the day-by-day, often fragmentary accounts of complex fund-raising practices as information about them has emerged over the past year. Where the news stories pointed to unanswered questions, the GOP letter filled in the blanks with the most negative possible assumptions about Clinton and Gore.
In her somewhat stern reply, Reno noted that the allegations are "apparently drawn in substantial part from press accounts, and which in some cases are inaccurate or incomplete." She went on to remind the Republicans that the independent counsel process is not triggered "by speculation and innuendo."
Reno's response to the House Republicans dissects the blob by separating the criminal from the controversial. Her finding that there is no evidence Gore broke any laws by participating in a fund-raising event at a Buddhist temple tempers but does not eliminate the politically damaging impression of a candidate embarked on a feverish search for financial support.
Reno also separated the broadly criminal from the specific sort of crimes that must be investigated by an independent counsel. Her conclusion that no evidence supports the Republican claims that Clinton accepted bribes from businessmen linked to the Chinese government still leaves open the possibility of prosecution that could profoundly embarrass the White House.
This distinction between ordinary crimes and alleged wrongdoing that requires an independent counsel will have an immediate impact on the conduct of the Justice Department task force investigating campaign finance abuses. Reno, in effect, created a no-go zone for investigators each time she concluded that in a specific area of conduct there was no evidence against Clinton or Gore to justify initiating the independent counsel process.
Under the rules the Justice Department has established for the task force, when the attorney general has ruled out an allegation, the task force cannot investigate that specific activity unless new information emerges. In other words, if there is no reason to suspect a crime, then there is no reason to investigate. That logic is cited by Justice Department officials to explain why no substantial efforts were undertaken to investigate Gore's phone calls after Reno's rejection in April of a request for an independent counsel. It took new information to open the matter, and investigators did not seek that information; rather it was brought to their attention by a newspaper report.
Reno's response to the House Republicans on Friday created that kind of exclusion on many subjects. But that is not all good news for Clinton and Gore.
The task force, newly expanded and under new leadership, will continue to investigate potential criminal behavior by a wide variety of fund-raisers and party officials who are not covered by the Independent Counsel Act. And, as far as Clinton and Gore are concerned, all the investigative attention now is focused on a relatively narrow range of actions: telephone solicitation from the White House. Having deferred investigations on so many other grounds, Reno would seem obliged to ensure that every investigative avenue is pursued on the one kind of allegation she is currently entertaining.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company