Preliminary Probe Ordered in Ickes Case
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 1998; Page A01
Attorney General Janet Reno yesterday took the first step toward seeking an independent counsel to investigate whether Harold Ickes, one of the principal architects of President Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign, lied to the Senate about political favors he performed to enlist support from the Teamsters union.
Reno notified a special panel of federal judges yesterday that she had opened a 90-day preliminary investigation into allegations that Ickes perjured himself, charges lodged by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in its final report on campaign finance abuses in the 1996 election.
The White House deputy chief of staff from 1994 to 1997, Ickes served as chief liaison to the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee. Because of his central role in the 1996 fund-raising operation, Justice Department officials said any independent counsel probe that results might broaden from a narrow perjury inquiry into a wider investigation of Democratic campaign practices.
"Ickes was such a central figure in the campaign that any investigation of him could carry you to the president and the vice president and many of the most controversial aspects of the fund-raising effort," a department official said.
Despite calls from congressional Republicans and some of her own top advisers, Reno has repeatedly refused to consider any independent counsel probe of the campaign finance controversy. But she has revived the long-dormant question in the last week by opening not only the Ickes inquiry but also a similar investigation of whether Vice President Gore made false statements to the Justice Department about the financing of a Democratic advertising blitz during the 1996 campaign.
At issue in the new investigation are sworn statements Ickes gave to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee last year in which he said that he did not know of any efforts by the Clinton administration to assist the Teamsters during a strike against the Diamond Walnut Co. At the time of the strike Ickes was helping coordinate a major effort by the White House and the DNC to encourage active Teamsters support for Clinton's reelection bid.
Asked what the administration did regarding the Diamond Walnut strike during a Sept. 22, 1997, Senate deposition, Ickes responded, "nothing that I know of."
The GOP majority on the committee concluded in its final report last March that both a memo from a top Teamsters official and testimony by an Ickes aide apparently contradicted Ickes's claims. Ickes, the report said, gave "less than candid testimony" because the other evidence showed that Ickes asked Mickey Kantor, then the U.S. trade representative, to intervene with Diamond Walnut executives so that they would settle their dispute with the Teamsters. Kantor later made the call, Ickes aide Jennifer O'Connor told the Senate panel.
Ickes did not return calls seeking comment yesterday. His attorneys, Robert S. Bennett and Amy Sabrin, issued a statement saying, "Mr. Ickes has been called upon to testify some 20 times as a result of his three years of White House service. He has testified truthfully on all occasions. Therefore, we think such a review -- and ultimately, the appointment of an independent counsel in this case -- is unwarranted."
Clinton, in a statement from Russia, praised Ickes as a "trusted adviser," and said he was "confident that investigators will find he acted lawfully and appropriately."
However, Reno is required by the Independent Counsel Act to seek an outside probe unless a preliminary investigation can show there are no reasonable grounds for further inquiry. Reno is further limited by a provision of the law that requires her to be extra skeptical in judging an individual's intentions. For example, to close a case involving an alleged false statement there must be "clear and convincing evidence" that the individual made an honest mistake, a high threshold to meet.
As deputy chief of staff, Ickes was not in a job specifically covered by the independent counsel law, which is designed to avoid the conflicts of interest that can occur if an attorney general were to investigate the president or other top officials of the same administration. While the president, vice president and members of the Cabinet are named in the law, it also gives an attorney general the discretion to seek an outside prosecutor if conflicts of interest arise regarding other officials.
Reno did so in this case, a course recommended by Charles G. LaBella, the former head of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force, in a report delivered to Reno July 16. In addition to the Ickes allegations, LaBella advised Reno to seek a wide-ranging independent counsel investigation of the campaign finance scandal, a recommendation that is fueling GOP demands for such a probe.
For example, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, yesterday said the Ickes investigation "should be followed by a broad-based request for an independent counsel to investigate the entirety of the Democratic campaign finance scandal." And Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), who chaired the Governmental Affairs probe, called the Ickes matter "just a small piece of the overall fund-raising scandal of 1996."
Five independent counsels are investigating current or former Clinton administration officials. Clinton is the subject of Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of the Monica S. Lewinsky matter and other matters. Mike Espy, the former secretary of agriculture, and Henry Cisneros, the former secretary of housing and urban development, are the subjects of independent counsel probes initiated during Clinton's first term.
Earlier this year, Reno secured the appointment of two new independent counsels to investigate allegations of wrongdoing against Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
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