Reno Delays Decision on Ickes Investigation
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 1998; Page A04
Attorney General Janet Reno yesterday delayed a decision on whether an independent counsel should investigate allegations that a top aide to President Clinton committed perjury during a Senate campaign finance probe.
The Justice Department spent three months on a preliminary investigation of Harold M. Ickes, a former deputy White House chief of staff, but top officials were split over whether to proceed with an independent counsel. At midday yesterday officials said Reno appeared to be leaning in favor of asking for appointment of an independent counsel, but the attorney general then decided to hold off and ask for more time to decide.
The allegation against Ickes was raised last March by the Republican majority of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which accused the veteran political operative of giving "less than candid" testimony about the Clinton administration's dealings with the Teamsters union.
Reno, as she has in other independent counsel decisions, did not start her final deliberations on the Ickes question until hours before a deadline set by law. Although she has often made her own call in the face of divided advice from top aides, officials said Reno balked yesterday because she was not comfortable with the choices before her -- either launch an independent counsel inquiry or shut down the investigation.
In a court document that remains under seal, Reno asked the special panel of three federal judges that oversees the independent counsel process for a 60-day extension. In granting the request, the judges, in a public document, said Reno had "shown good cause for the requested extension" but did not disclose her rationale.
Justice Department officials said Reno asked for further analysis of evidence that has already been gathered and some of her top aides agreed with her.
In addition to materials from the Senate probe and its own investigation, the Justice Department is considering evidence recently gathered in an ongoing investigation of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters by the House Education and the Workforce oversight and investigations subcommittee.
Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who is among several Republican leaders to consistently reproach Reno for not seeking an independent counsel on campaign finance matters, said in a statement yesterday that "every time we reach a new plateau, Attorney General Reno delays and delays and delays."
The Ickes inquiry is one of three independent counsel decisions that have preoccupied Reno this autumn. Last week, she also faced contradictory advice from top aides but decided at the last minute against seeking further investigation of whether Vice President Gore made false statements about campaign finance practices. Next week, she faces a deadline in a preliminary investigation of President Clinton's use of Democratic Party funds for television advertising in the 1996 campaign.
Attorneys for Ickes, now a Washington attorney and business consultant, have said that he has been called upon to testify some 20 times as a result of his White House service from 1994 to 1997 and that he has told the truth on every occasion.
The only allegation under consideration by Reno is whether Ickes lied to Senate investigators when he said he had no knowledge of anything done by the Clinton administration regarding a labor dispute between the Teamsters and Diamond Walnut Growers Inc., a cooperative of nut growers in California. The Teamsters had been on strike for nearly four years and were looking for a resolution in 1995 when Ickes sought the union's financial support for Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign.
According to an internal Teamsters memorandum acquired by Senate investigators, Ickes told union officials that he had contacted then-U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and asked him to call a Diamond Walnut executive and press for a resolution in favor of the Teamsters. An aide to Ickes confirmed to Senate investigators that Ickes had called Kantor about Diamond Walnut.
In the testimony at issue, Ickes was asked by Senate investigators during a deposition on Sept. 22, 1997, "What did the administration do regarding the Diamond Walnut strike?"
Ickes replied, "Nothing that I know of."
Although the question was asked twice in different ways, the Senate investigators did not further explore the matter with Ickes, nor did they develop conclusive evidence that Kantor had reported back to Ickes that he had taken any action on behalf of the Teamsters.
Ickes's apparent denial of facts that should have been well known to him convinced some senior Justice Department officials that he should be investigated for perjury by an independent counsel. Other officials argued that the questioning of Ickes was so weak that no investigation is justified.
In testimony in October to the House panel investigating the Teamsters, Kantor said that although Ickes asked him to call Diamond Walnut's president, it was not as part of an effort to assist the union. Instead, Kantor said, he merely called to inquire about the status of the labor dispute.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who heads the House investigation of the Teamsters, said there is evidence that Kantor pressured the growers on the Teamsters' behalf. "The information we developed strongly suggests that the attorney general must appoint an independent counsel," Hoekstra said in a statement yesterday.
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