Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 1997; Page A01
Attorney General Janet Reno yesterday rejected Republican demands for an independent counsel to investigate reports of illegal fund-raising by the 1996 Clinton reelection campaign, informing Congress that a special Justice Department task force will continue to examine the allegations.
In letters to congressional leaders, Reno said that charges of wrongdoing aimed at President Clinton and other top administration officials are not specific and credible enough to trigger the independent counsel law, and she dismissed suggestions that she suffers a conflict of interest in trying to investigate the president who appointed her.
"I can assure you that I have given your views and your arguments careful thought, but at this time, I am unable to agree, based on the facts and the law, that an independent counsel should be appointed to handle this investigation," Reno said in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).
Reno said the five-month-old inquiry by the Justice Department task force will go forward. "This task force is pursuing the investigation vigorously and diligently, and it will continue to do so," Reno said.
Reno's decision came in response to formal requests by the Republican members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees. Hatch declined last night to comment on Reno's decision, but other GOP leaders criticized the attorney general in unusually personal terms.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) called Reno's decision "inexcusable," asserting that she faces a "clear conflict of interest" in investigating high administration officials.
"Tonight the American people clearly have a crisis of confidence in the Clinton administration," he said in a statement that decried the "politicization of the Clinton Justice Department."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said in a statement he was "keenly disappointed" by Reno, who he said suffers a conflict of interest. "It is reasonable to assume that she is under enormous pressure from the White House," he said.
The independent counsel statute was enacted in 1978 and was reauthorized by Congress most recently in 1994. The law requires the attorney general to seek appointment of an independent counsel when there is specific evidence, from a credible source, of wrongdoing by so-called covered individuals, a category that includes the president and vice president, Cabinet members, certain other senior federal officials and specified officers of the president's election campaign (not party officials).
A second part of the law leaves it to the discretion of the attorney general to seek appointment of an independent counsel if she determines, once there are sufficient allegations of criminal activity by someone other than a covered individual, that an investigation or prosecution of that person by the Justice Department may pose a conflict of interest for the department.
In either case, once a determination is made that there are credible allegations a federal law has been violated, the Justice Department launches a preliminary investigation. If that inquiry finds further investigation is warranted, the matter is referred to a three-member panel of federal judges, which picks an independent counsel.
Since reports of questionable fund-raising tactics emerged in the closing weeks of last year's campaign, Reno repeatedly has rejected calls for an independent counsel, saying that the allegations did not meet the tests set by the statute.
In her 10-page letter to Hatch, Reno first outlined the provisions of the statute, then judged each of his allegations insufficient to trigger it. Among the allegations:
Campaign contributions were solicited illegally on federal property, particularly from Democratic donors during White House visits and overnight stays. Pointing to the Federal Election Campaign Act definition of what constitutes an illegal contribution in such situations, Reno said no credible evidence had been found of a violation. At the same time, she noted, the private presidential residence in the White House is generally determined to be exempt from the definition of federal property.
Government property and employees may have been used illegally to further campaign interests, including reports that Vice President Gore used a government telephone to make campaign solicitations. "We are unaware at this time of any evidence that any covered person participated in such activity, other than . . . is permitted under Federal law," Reno said. Gore, she noted, reportedly used a "nongovernment credit card."
Foreign efforts to influence U.S. policy. Without addressing any specific allegations, Reno said that at this point in the investigation there was no evidence that a person covered by the statute had been complicit in any such activity.
Coordination of campaign fund-raising and expenditures. Such activity would be illegal only if it were misreported under campaign expenditure laws. "However, we presently lack specific and credible evidence suggesting that any covered person participated in any such violations, if they occurred," Reno responded.
In terms of possible conflict of interest for the Justice Department, Reno said she had made no such finding, and said the department had a "long history of investigating allegations of criminal activity by high-ranking Government officials without fear or favor, and will do so in this case."
As she has in the past, Reno noted that she has relied on "career professionals" at Justice to investigate such matters and to advise her on the applicability of the independent counsel law. During Clinton's first term, four independent counsels were appointed.
Yesterday's letters marked Reno's first formal reappraisal of the situation since allegations first were published in February that the Chinese government had planned to influence the election with illegal donations. At the same time, documents released by the White House, the Democratic National Committee and Congress in recent months have indicated extensive involvement by Clinton, Gore and top aides in controversial fund-raising practices, such as rewarding big donors with overnight White House visits.
In her letter to Hatch, Reno emphasized that "the task force continues to receive new information. . . . Should future developments make it appropriate to invoke the procedures of the Act, I will do so without hesitation."
Demands for an independent counsel and attacks on Reno from Republicans, editorial writers and others have grown more heated with each new revelation. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and three other GOP leaders each chastised Reno in similar terms on talk shows Sunday, and threatened to summon her to answer for her actions under oath in congressional hearings.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, defended Reno and accused Republicans of trying to "politicize the independent counsel law."
"The attorney general has followed the law," Leahy said in a statement, "while the [Republican] majority in Congress has abused it by attempting to bully her into the decision they want. Their letter to the attorney general attempted to dictate a conclusion. Now some are intent on drenching this issue in more political bathwater by threatening to haul the attorney general before partisan hearings."
He added, "It is ironic and it is harmful for Republicans in Congress to go to such extreme lengths to politicize the independent counsel law, which was intended to insulate these decisions from politics."
No previous attorney general has faced a similar onslaught, according to Philip B. Heymann, a professor at Harvard Law School who served as deputy attorney general early in the Clinton administration. "There has never been anything quite like this in the history of the independent counsel statute," he said.
Experts also noted that no other attorney general has been in the position of having to respond to repeated formal requests for an independent counsel while trying to conduct a large-scale and highly sensitive investigation.
The Justice Department announced the formation of the task force to investigate alleged election law violations last Nov. 8 in the course of denying a request from Common Cause, the public interest lobby group, for an independent counsel.
Since then, the size of the task force has grown and the scope of its investigation has broadened to include a variety of alleged fund-raising violations by presidential and congressional campaigns, as well as allegations the Chinese government planned to try to influence the election, according to federal officials.
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.
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