By George Lardner Jr.
A House committee voted yesterday to hold Attorney General Janet Reno in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over Justice Department memos subpoenaed in a dispute over her failure to appoint an independent counsel to investigate 1996 campaign fund-raising abuses.
It was the first time a full House committee had ever voted to hold an attorney general in contempt. All 24 Republicans on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee voted for the resolution. Eighteen Democrats and independent Bernard Sanders (Vt.) voted no.
Republicans on the panel hailed the move as historic and said it was soundly based on precedents dating to the 1920s Teapot Dome scandal. Democrats denounced it as an exercise in "raw intimidation" aimed at forcing Reno to turn over her department's investigation of 1996 presidential campaign financing to an independent counsel.
The full House would have to approve a contempt citation before it could be referred to the U.S. Attorney's office here for prosecution. Only one high-level contempt citation has ever gotten that far; two others led to compromises between the administration and Congress. But yesterday, the two sides seemed far apart, with Reno warning that release of the documents would "provide criminals, targets and defense lawyers alike with a road map to our investigations."
The committee chairman, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), took umbrage at suggestions that the Republican majority would quickly leak the memos, one written by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and the other by the former head of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force, Charles G. LaBella.
"For the attorney general or anyone else to suggest that we would cavalierly publicize information that would jeopardize criminal prosecutions is irresponsible," Burton said.
Reno stood firm at a hurriedly called news conference after the vote. She said she was still reviewing the memos, both concluding that the law requires her to seek the appointment of a special prosecutor. She had refused in the past to take such a step, but she said she is considering it again with "an open mind."
"I don't know whether I'm going to ask for an independent counsel or not," Reno said. She said last week that she wanted three more weeks to study the matter, but there were reports last night that she is working on a 30-day deadline, set by law.
If she decides at that point that the information in it about possible crimes by high-level officials is both specific and "from a credible source," she would have to order a preliminary investigation that could take another 90 days. That could postpone a final decision until after the fall elections.
Justice Department spokesman Bert Brandenburg refused to comment on the reports.
Whatever the decision, Reno said, "I simply have to draw the line and stand for what I believe to be a very important principle: Prosecutions in America must be free of political influence."
Her critics in Congress and elsewhere have charged that this is the principle she has been ignoring in an investigation that involves the man who appointed her, President Clinton, as well as Vice President Gore and other officials explicitly covered by the independent counsel law.
"It has been apparent from an early point that the Independent Counsel Act requires the attorney general to appoint an independent counsel," the Burton committee said in a majority report recommending a contempt citation by the full House. "The committee is responsible for ensuring that the Department of Justice acts in a manner consistent with the law. In this situation, the oversight interests of the Congress are greater than the institutional policy concerns of the Department of Justice."
Only two other Cabinet officers have been cited for contempt by a full House committee. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger was accused of "contumacious conduct" in 1975 by the House intelligence committee for refusing to produce subpoenaed records, most of them bearing on covert CIA operations, but compromises with the administration kept the matter from reaching the House floor.
In 1982, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted to cite Interior Secretary James G. Watt for withholding documents about Canadian energy policy toward U.S. companies, but a compromise was reached when a committee delegation inspected the papers.
Also in 1982, the House voted to hold Anne M. Gorsuch, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, in contempt for refusing, on President Ronald Reagan's orders, to produce documents sought by two House committees concerning enforcement of the hazardous waste cleanup law. The Justice Department refused to prosecute, but Gorsuch later resigned.
Reno said she offered to brief the committee in a public session "on the legal rationale" set forth in the memos, but only after she has made her decision. Burton dismissed the offer as "a nonstarter" because "the guts" of the recommendations would not be available.
Reno said she would continue to do "our level best to see that an accommodation is reached."
The dispute could not come up on the House floor until September, after the summer recess.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the House committee's ranking minority member, charged in the debate before the vote that what Burton was doing was part "political theater" and part "raw intimidation." Burton, Waxman noted, told Reno last week that he would drop the contempt action if she agrees to the appointment of an independent counsel.
"I want to remind my colleagues that the penalty for contempt is as much as one year in jail," Waxman said. "Is that what we've come to? We threaten the attorney general with jail time if she doesn't make the decisions we want? . . . This odious threat of contempt is itself beneath contempt."
Democrats also emphasized LaBella's warnings at a Tuesday hearing that disclosure of his 94-page memo, constituting a "road map" of the Justice Department's work thus far, would be "devastating" to the campaign financing investigation. He said it should never "see the light of day because that would just undercut what any prosecutor would do with these investigations, whether they are an independent counsel or a Department of Justice prosecutor."
Republicans brushed off the attacks on Burton as tired replays of rhetoric the Democrats used to direct at the previous chairman, former Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.).
Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) said the committee "would not be here" if the Freeh and LaBella recommendations had not been leaked to reporters. He accused Reno of "prosecutorial malpractice" for not cracking down, especially after Freeh's recommendation became public in December.
The existence of LaBella's memo came to light in the New York Times on July 23. LaBella said he gave a copy to Reno on July 16 and made only two others, keeping one for himself and giving the other to the chief FBI agent on the task force, who gave it to Freeh.
Reno's office, the committee was told, made nine copies that were distributed to high-ranking advisers and discussed at a meeting Reno held on July 21.
Asked about the GOP charges that Reno or members of her staff were responsible for the leaks, Reno said: "Considering the pain it's caused me, that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."
While Democrats produced letters from three former attorneys general supporting Reno, Burton drew a strong endorsement from Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), who conducted a lengthy campaign finance investigation last year.
"The Burton committee stands on sound legal ground," Thompson said in a statement. "It has offered to let all sensitive investigative matters be deleted from the report. . . . Contempt is an unusual proceeding, but these are unusual circumstances -- circumstances the attorney general and the Justice Department have created."
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