Reno Rejects Call For Special Counsel
By Pierre Thomas
The Justice Department yesterday rejected the last outstanding congressional request for an independent counsel inquiry into questionable Democratic campaign contributions, saying it was capable of investigating the matter on its own.
In a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the department said there is no evidence, at this time, that anyone covered under the independent counsel act committed a crime. The department said the law clearly does not envision appointment of special prosecutors to investigate officials of political parties like the Democratic National Committee.
McCain had asked Attorney General Janet Reno to seek an independent prosecutor to investigate donations handled by John Huang. A former top DNC fund-raiser, Huang solicited nearly $1.5 million in contributions the DNC has returned as improper. McCain was the third member of Congress to ask Reno to seek an independent counsel, and his request was considered the most persuasive.
In his reply to McCain, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mark Richard stressed the department is continuing its review of questionable DNC donations. Prosecutors formed a task force several weeks ago following a stream of news reports that the DNC accepted contributions from illegal foreign sources, from individuals who did not contribute their funds and from companies that cannot be traced easily.
Richard wrote that the task force has authority to investigate any criminal wrongdoing. It is empowered to seek search warrants, subpoena witnesses and direct FBI agents to conduct interviews if needed.
Richard's letter also said Reno still could seek an independent prosecutor if the department's inquiry implicates an individual covered under the independent counsel statute.
White House officials have grumbled that Reno has been too quick to seek independent counsels, and President Clinton has not yet announced whether he will keep her as attorney general.
At Reno's request, four independent counsels were named to investigate Clinton or his Cabinet members since he was elected president. Three are still operating; one investigating Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown closed his inquiry when Brown died.
Justice Department officials said Reno's decision not to seek another special prosecutor was based on the independent counsel statute.
In his letter, Richard noted Congress, in drafting the law, decided not to require an independent counsel be named to investigate political parties that raise money for a variety of state and federal candidates.
By contrast, top officials of a presidential or vice presidential campaign were considered to be too close to the president to be investigated by the Justice Department, and the law envisions a special prosecutor would conduct any criminal inquiry focused on them.
The mere assertions Clinton or Vice President Gore were "involved" in soliciting or receiving possibly improper donations, or contributors met with the president and benefited from government decisions, "fall far short of the sort of specific facts" necessary to trigger appointment of an independent counsel, Richard wrote.
"To the extent that there are allegations that may warrant criminal investigation at this time, they relate only to lower-ranking public officials, DNC employees and contributors," the letter said.
Reno also could have sought a special prosecutor on the basis that it would be conflict of interest for the department to investigate the DNC's contributions. But Richard wrote, "We reject any suggestion that simply because an allegation of wrongdoing might arise in the context of the political process, the Department of Justice is automatically disqualified from its traditional role as the enforcer of Federal criminal law."
McCain, in a statement yesterday, said Reno's decision "is further proof that congressional hearings may need to be held to investigate these serious allegations." In a subsequent telephone interview, McCain said while he "had no reason to doubt Reno's integrity, I'm obviously disappointed."
Sources said last week that a number of senior department officials believe FBI agents should be dispatched to investigate donations to the DNC, especially in cases where individuals acknowledged giving other people's money.
It is illegal to donate funds in another's name.
But, although department officials insisted any allegations of criminal misconduct will be pursued, they also suggested the campaign finance law is vague in some respects about what constitutes a crime. The task force is looking at what the law says about so-called soft money donations.
Soft money is supposed to be used only for party-building activities such as voter turnout but not directly on a candidate's campaign. Most of the donations the DNC has returned were soft money contributions.
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