By Roberto Suro and Michael Grunwald
Attorney General Janet Reno is reviewing a new recommendation by her top campaign finance prosecutor that she seek an independent counsel but appears no closer to supporting such an outside probe than when the idea was first suggested 21 months ago, Justice Department officials said yesterday.
The prosecutor, Charles G. LaBella, delivered the report to Reno Friday as he prepared to end a 10-month stint as head of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force. After analyzing evidence collected by the task force but never made public, the report concludes that there are sufficient indications of wrongdoing by the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection effort to merit an independent counsel, said officials familiar with the document.
Republican leaders in Congress immediately seized on news of LaBella's report to step up their long-standing demands for an independent counsel. But Reno continued to insist that she will only do what she thinks is right regardless of how many others, even within the Justice Department, urge her to do otherwise.
"If one person out of a hundred has the right answer, that's what I should do," she said. "I don't do things based on majority vote. I do things based on evidence and the law."
But Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), who led the Senate's campaign finance investigation, said he suspected LaBella's report will not sway her. "I think she made this decision long ago, and nothing is going to change her mind," he said.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, immediately announced plans to hold a hearing next Thursday on the issue. LaBella, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and James Desarno, the top FBI agent on the task force, have been called to testify. Reno was not invited.
"It is becoming more and more apparent that she is trying to protect the president rather than do her job as a law enforcement official," Burton said. "I think you're going to see people start calling for her replacement very soon. She's stretching the limits of the patience of the Congress of the United States."
LaBella's report marks at least the third time that a senior Justice Department official has advised Reno to seek an independent counsel in the campaign finance investigation. Last November, when a preliminary inquiry was underway into allegations that President Clinton and Vice President Gore had made illegal fund-raising phone calls from the White House, LaBella and Freeh urged her to seek an outside counsel, but Reno rejected the advice.
Officials familiar with Freeh's memo last winter and LaBella's current report said that LaBella's includes a much more extensive review of the evidence and makes a firmer conclusion that there are sufficient indications of wrongdoing by top officials to oblige Reno to seek an outside prosecutor. As with the Freeh memo, the basic argument is that top Democratic and White House officials conducted a systematic and deliberate effort to circumvent campaign finance laws setting limits on fund-raising and defining what constitutes a legal contribution.
LaBella's report does not dramatically break new ground either in the evidence it presents or in the legal arguments it marshals, but it does present a lengthy and detailed account of facts pointing to questionable Democratic fund-raising activities, according to officials familiar with the document.
Given his stature as a highly regarded and independent career prosecutor hand-picked by Reno to lead the campaign finance probe, LaBella has succeeded in reviving a controversy that has dogged the attorney general since the closing days of the 1996 campaign and that shows no signs of dissipating.
LaBella does not allege specific crimes against individual officials but rather points to a variety of circumstances that he believes require further investigation, officials said. He concludes that such an inquiry should be conducted by an outside prosecutor in order to fulfill the intent of the independent counsel law , a post-Watergate reform designed to prevent an attorney general from investigating top officials of the same administration.
Reno yesterday repeatedly characterized LaBella's report as just one perspective on the independent counsel question and emphasized that she would consider opposing views as well before making a decision. In the past, those views have prevailed every time arguments similar to LaBella's have been presented to Reno. Lee J. Radek, the longtime head of the public integrity section in the Justice Department's Criminal Division, has been one of the most influential opponents to the appointment of an independent counsel among Reno's advisers, officials said.
LaBella, then the No. 2 federal prosecutor in San Diego, was appointed chief of the task force last September when the investigation was mired in internal disagreements and logistical problems. He effectively replaced Radek and made a point of distancing himself from the public integrity section and of reporting directly to Reno.
"There are a range of lawyers within the department who have had long experience with the Independent Counsel Act," Reno said yesterday. "And what we do is hear from everybody, not just one lawyer, but everybody. And we make sure that we try to consider all arguments, and reach the best decision based on the history of the act, the legislative history and other factors."
No special mechanism will be created to consider the report, department officials said. Instead, it will be handled as part of the usual process of overseeing the campaign finance investigation. One key question to be decided is whether Reno will deliver a specific response to LaBella's recommendations or whether it will be left an open matter, they said.
The apparent lack of urgency contrasts with several other occasions when Reno has responded within a few days, even within hours, after receiving recommendations that she launch the independent counsel process.
Republicans can complain if Reno ultimately rejects LaBella's advice, but there is not much they can do to change her decision. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) wants the Senate Judiciary Committee to seek a writ of mandamus, a court ruling that would compel a government official like Reno to perform duties mandated by law. He says Reno has clearly shirked her duty to seek an independent counsel after receiving specific and credible evidence of wrongdoing by the president.
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