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A Giant Step for Justice

Sunday, October 5, 1997; Page C06

ATTORNEY GENERAL Janet Reno has bought some time in the investigation of fund-raising practices associated with last year's presidential campaign. She and the career people in the Justice Department on whom she has been relying with such mixed results have an obligation to make good use of it, as they have not in past.

The question Ms. Reno faces is whether to seek appointment of an independent counsel in the case. It's a huge step because it likely would result in an open-ended inquiry with an powerful and uncertain effect on national politics, lasting who knows how long. No one can want such a thing to be done for the wrong reasons. The department has been investigating whether the vice president used the wrong phone in raising some of the money he did last year. But surely the choice of a phone can't be the issue; it would be ludicrous to make it so, to open so broad a process on so trivial a base. It would likewise be an abdication to do it for no reason other than the fluffy one of what people might think if it weren't done.

If there is specific and credible evidence that a covered official committed a crime or if there is a genuine as opposed to apparent conflict of interest, then the attorney general should seek an independent counsel. That's what Ms. Reno has said all along is needed. On the strength of what is known so far, the test has not been met convincingly. By the Justice Department's own standards, what the vice president did does not appear to be a prosecutable offense. If that's the case, Ms. Reno would be right to say so and wrong to give in to those who want her to name an independent counsel.

But as a political proposition, if she takes this position she needs to be able to make a credible showing that the Justice Department is itself conducting a vigorous and continuing investigation of the matter. That's been the problem. The Justice investigation has been clumsy and weak. A lengthy account last week by Post staff writers Susan Schmidt and Roberto Suro confirms the impression, describing a cautious, bureaucratic exercise almost bound by its self-imposed constaints to fail. What Ms. Reno now has is time and an outside chance to change that perception.

Vast amounts of money were raised and laundered in the last election by both parties, if not in violation of the campaign-finance laws, then to circumvent them. The giving and getting of that kind of money threatens to consume the political system. The law was tossed aside last year by people seeking an office whose oath is to uphold the law. People understand that. Ms. Reno, if she eventually decides as perhaps she should not to seek an independent counsel, needs to find some way to speak to that understanding. If the law was trashed, as in a practical if not technical sense it pretty clearly was, and she doesn't think an independent counsel is called for, what does the nation's chief law enforcement officer think should happen instead?

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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