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Mr. Burton and Ms. Reno

Friday, August 7, 1998; Page A24


The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee's vote yesterday to cite the attorney general for contempt of Congress is a dangerous political interference in a law enforcement decision that threatens to undermine the Justice Department's campaign finance investigation -- an interference, ironically, by the same people who purport to want a vigorous investigation.

The citation resulted from the staring contest between committee Chairman Dan Burton and Janet Reno over a subpoena he issued to her for confidential memoranda written by FBI Director Louis Freeh and the former chief of the department's task force, Charles LaBella. Both had advised Ms. Reno to appoint an independent counsel -- advice she has so far rejected. Ms. Reno has, furthermore, not said enough in explanation of her position on the independent counsel question, so a certain frustration with her reticence is appropriate.

But her refusal to turn over the memoranda is nonetheless correct, and Mr. Burton's approach to the matter has been nothing less than thuggish. The memos are quite detailed and would offer possible targets of the department's probe an in-depth look at the Justice Department's prosecutorial strategy and theories. The LaBella memorandum is also the subject of current review, as Ms. Reno says she has yet to decide whether his lengthy discussion of the evidence persuades her finally to invoke the law. She has offered to brief Mr. Burton on its contents, but has asked for three weeks to finish considering its recommendations.

This reasonable accommodation was not good enough for Mr. Burton when Ms. Reno explained her position to him at a meeting last week. According to a letter by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who was present along with Mr. Freeh, Mr. Burton told her he would begin the process of seeking a contempt citation for her failure to produce the memoranda. But, he added, the matter would not come up on the House floor until Congress reconvenes in September, and he would drop the matter if she sought an independent counsel before then. Mr. Waxman's letter accused Mr. Burton of "intimidation" and of seeking "to coerce an executive branch official to reach a predetermined conclusion on a discretionary matter."

Mr. Burton has denied this, but his own statement of his position is hardly reassuring. "I would certainly prefer to have the documents to review, rather than hold the Attorney General in contempt for refusing Congress' legitimate oversight in these matters," he wrote Mr. Waxman on Monday. "Obviously, a decision to appoint an independent counsel might make the oversight of the Justice Department's investigation moot." The line separating a simple statement of fact from a threat can be a thin one. Mr. Burton should not be flirting with it, and Ms. Reno -- right or wrong on the independent counsel question -- is right in her refusal to be bullied.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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