Reno Concedes Tension in Funds Probe, Notes New Procedures
By Roberto Suro
Attorney General Janet Reno acknowledged yesterday that the Justice Department investigation of the campaign finance scandal has been plagued by internal tensions and organizational problems and said she has given FBI Director Louis J. Freeh an unusually prominent role in the inquiry to ensure that it thoroughly examines every allegation.
Under the arrangement, both Freeh and Reno must sign off on a decision to end a line of investigation an indication that the two officials have been exercising a much stricter level of supervision since Reno last month ordered a management shake-up of the task force conducting the probe.
"I want to make sure that no stone is left unturned, and Director Freeh and I will jointly approve any investigation's close-out before it is closed out," Reno said in a day-long appearance before the House Judiciary Committee.
Under sharp questioning by Republican committee members, Reno held firm in rejecting demands that she seek the appointment of an independent counsel because the public no longer trusts the Justice Department to investigate alleged wrongdoing in the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection effort.
"I'm going to ignore pressure," Reno said. "I'm going to do it based on the evidence and the law."
Reno responded most defiantly to suggestions she be guided by public opinion in conducting the investigation.
After committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) cited polls indicating that many Americans would like the appointment of an independent counsel, Reno said: "I don't think the American people want polls involved; otherwise you would have written a statute that said, `When 51 percent of the American people think there should be an independent counsel statute, we'll have one.' And I don't think that's what you want, Mr. Chairman."
The long-scheduled hearing was widely expected to produce a confrontation because it followed Reno's decision Oct. 3 to reject a wide-ranging request from committee Republicans to immediately seek an independent counsel investigation. So far Reno has approved three separate preliminary investigations of President Clinton and Vice President Gore's White House phone calls to donors and an allegation that then-Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary solicited a bribe from a campaign donor.
Reno has until Dec. 2 to decide whether any of these investigations warrant the appointment of an independent counsel, and she emphasized yesterday that a wide range of allegations involving Clinton and Gore are still being examined. "We continue to investigate every transaction brought to our attention."
While Hyde and his GOP colleagues criticized the extent and direction of the Justice Department investigation, they also took care to acknowledge Reno's reputation for integrity. "We are here more in sorrow than in anger," Hyde said at the start of the hearing. But he added, "At some point questions must be answered, if only to build confidence that a rigorous investigation is underway and that Justice isn't merely circling the wagons to defend the White House."
During her testimony, Reno deflected dozens of questions about specific individuals and events by simply stating that she could not comment on the matters because they are under investigation. Over the course of the day, the list of allegations that she categorized in this manner grew to include possible obstruction of justice by White House officials in the handling of videotapes made at political events as well as claims that a controversial Chinese conglomerate was granted concessions at the port in Long Beach, Calif., in exchange for campaign money.
When the seven-hour marathon hearing ended, Hyde thanked Reno and said, "We didn't learn a great deal, but then again we didn't expect to."
The competence of the task force conducting the Justice Department investigation has been called into question because Reno has repeatedly reassured her critics that it is fully exploring all allegations and that it will continue to handle the inquiry unless evidence emerges justifying an independent counsel.
But on Sept. 16 Reno ordered a shake-up of the task force after a series of embarrassing episodes that included her own admission that she initiated a probe of Gore's White House fund-raising phone calls only after seeing key evidence in a newspaper article.
Reno argued that the task force now numbering 120 attorneys, FBI agents and support staff might not be seen as effective as it should be because it is pursuing a strategy that resembles the construction of a house.
"When we build a case, we focus on building the foundation well; starting carefully, building it carefully, making sure that we go from a lower-level person to a higher-level person, if they are in and ultimately to the person responsible," Reno said. She conceded that a person driving by such a construction site might "conclude that they can't see the walls or the roof and that little progress is being made."
In response to questioning by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.,) Reno acknowledged that as a result of that strategy, interviews of senior personnel had often been put off, a fact that McCollum said had generated complaints from FBI agents on the task force.
Reno said, "There may have been a situation where someone said, `It's better to build from the ground up and interview them down the road than interview them now.' " While "there may have been tensions early on" as a result of such decisions, she said that in collaboration with Freeh she had resolved the matter.
She said that the new managers of the task force in place for the past month "are fine-tuning the strategy" and that the inquiry is now aiming higher. One of the keys now is "if an allegation develops a conspiracy, that we focus on the people responsible for the conspiracy."
Reno said that she belatedly discovered that as reams of documents were submitted to the task force, "they thought they could keep up with it, and they couldn't." She said that she and Freeh "immediately took action to ensure that they had the resources to properly analyze the records and the equipment to properly assimilate the records."
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