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Ms. Reno's Testimony

Friday, October 17, 1997; Page A28

ATTORNEY GENERAL Janet Reno did a fairly creditable job the other day of defending her position with regard to the naming of an independent counsel to investigate last year's campaign fund-raising. Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee kept asking, did she not think this or that circumstance required her to seek appointment of an independent counsel under the terms of the act? No, she would consistently reply.

Chairman Henry Hyde, for whom she rightly expressed her considerable respect, pointed out that polls show the public thinks the investigation and prosecution of this case should be taken out of the Justice Department and put in independent hands. His point was that one of the objects of the statute is to preserve the confidence in the administration of justice that the polls would suggest the public now lacks. There is a case that can be made on these grounds. But her response was also a strong one. And it could itself influence the polls. It was that law enforcement ought to be based on something other than shifts in public opinion. "I don't think you want polls involved in the construction of the law . . . and I don't think the American people want polls involved."

Another member asked if a given transaction didn't create "an appearance of wrongdoing." "I am not addressing the issue of appearance," was her reply. "What I am addressing is whether there is specific and credible information that a . . . person [covered by the counsel statute] may have committee a violation of federal criminal law."

What about a case in which a contributor may have benefited from administration policy, she was asked. "When somebody contributes to a congressional campaign, and then the congressman votes in favor of the interest that was making the contribution, I do not automatically assume that the congressman has done something wrong," she answered, to which her questioner replied, "Well, and nor do any of us." The interlocutors, however, did not exhaust the subject with that formulation.

She said the government had the double obligation in this case of enforcing the law vigorously without regard to party, but without allowing itself to be "caught up in mere speculation and innuendo," either. Senior committee Democrat Barney Frank drew a second distinction. "People can find actions of the president and the vice president, in the course of fund-raising, unattractive. I do. There are things they did that I don't think they should have done." But that's not the same as saying they broke the law.

Ms. Reno left open, as she has before, the possibility that she may yet decide to seek an independent counsel. In an effort to reassure the committee, she said FBI Director Louis Freeh would have to sign off on the abandonment of any line of investigation. The investigation has had an ineffective start. She has at last moved to strengthen it. We'll see. She bears an extra burden of proof if she decides not to seek an independent counsel.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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