By George Lardner Jr.
The former head of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force and the director of the FBI told Congress yesterday that they are convinced that federal law demands appointment of an independent counsel to investigate allegations against President Clinton and others, but said that the release of memos detailing their position would be "devastating" to inquiries they are pursuing.
The former head of the task force, Charles LaBella, told the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee that he personally delivered a 94-page memo outlining the need for an independent counsel on campaign finance, along with a foot-high stack of supporting exhibits, to Attorney General Janet Reno on the evening of July 16.
He said, however, that Reno, who has so far refused to seek appointment of an independent counsel, asked him no questions about his views then or since. Reno met with some of her top advisers July 21 to discuss the recommendation, but LaBella, FBI Director Louis Freeh and James V. DeSarno, special agent in charge of the FBI's campaign task force contingent, said none of them was invited.
Freeh, who recommended appointment of an independent counsel to Reno last November, said the circumstances calling for one are "certainly just as compelling now" as they were then. He said he read LaBella's memo thoroughly over the past two weeks and agreed with it. DeSarno said he did, too.
The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee took the testimony at a five-hour hearing that set the stage for a vote Thursday on whether to hold Attorney General Janet Reno in contempt of Congress for refusing to produce the LaBella and Freeh memos despite a formal subpoena for them.
Seeking to head off the confrontation, Reno made a last-minute bid to testify before the committee herself, but Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) turned her down, saying the request came too abruptly for members to prepare questions.
Reno countered with an afternoon press conference and a four-page letter to Burton, voicing hopes for "an accommodation" that would allow the panel to pursue its oversight responsibilities while "minimizing any interference with our ongoing criminal investigation."
Reno said she was reviewing LaBella's memo "with an open mind" and intends to consult with him before making a decision, but needs approximately three more weeks. At the same time, she said she was unwilling to surrender the memos because they "offer a road map to confidential, ongoing criminal investigations."
"Even excluding grand jury information," which the committee has said should be excised, "such documents lay out the thinking, theories and strategies of our prosecutors and investigators, and the strengths and weaknesses of our cases," Reno said. "They talk about leads that need further investigation, and places where we've reached dead ends. Criminals, targets and defense lawyers alike can all agree on one thing -- they would love to have a prosecutor's plans."
In a letter to Reno Monday, designed as a precursor to a contempt citation, Burton complained that Reno has "disregarded the advice of your two most senior people working on the campaign finance investigation" (LaBella and Freeh) to heed the independent counsel law, a statute explicitly designed for instances where the attorney general was seen to have a potential conflict of interest in investigating alleged wrongdoing by high-level executive branch officials.
Freeh told the committee that he feels the law requires an independent counsel because the investigations of 1996 presidential campaign financing abuses "involves a core group of individuals" at the White House and elsewhere, some explicitly covered by the law and some whose continued investigation by the Justice Department would pose "a personal, financial or political conflict of interest."
Burton asked, "Does that [group] include the president and the vice president?"
"Yes, sir," Freeh replied.
LaBella said he made his recommendations primarily on the "mandatory" provisions of the law, triggered when there is specific information from a credible source that a covered officeholder, from the president on down, may have violated federal criminal law. He said the conflict-of-interest provisions "played a very small part" in his memo.
Scolded at one point for the fact that the existence of his memo was leaked to the press, LaBella alluded ruefully to the subsequent dashing of his hopes of becoming U.S. attorney in San Diego. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) announced Friday that she had recommended that President Clinton appoint Gregory Vega, another federal prosecutor in San Diego, to the job LaBella has been holding on an acting basis.
"It wasn't a real career-enhancing move for that to be leaked, for me personally," LaBella said.
Reno, at her press conference, said she had "no discussions with anyone involved in that process" of the presidential appointment in San Diego. A spokesman for Boxer said she relied on the recommendations of her judicial advisory committee and that Boxer "did not consult with the White House nor did she talk to Justice" about the matter.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said last evening that LaBella's being passed over for the job "has all the indications of retribution" and that he would press for an oversight hearing on the matter as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In a partisan roll-call vote of 23 to 15, the House committee ratified Burton's letter to Reno, reflecting its intent to press for a contempt citation. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking minority member, denounced the move as the gesture of "a kangaroo court" and accused Burton of "blatant strong-arm tactics."
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