In the first week of July 1997, the Justice Department dispatched a lawyer from its campaign-finance task force and an FBI agent to Little Rock, Ark., in quest of a warrant to search the home and offices of restaurateur and Clinton fund-raiser Charlie Trie. But they were called back to Washington before any warrant could be issued.

Not until 3 1/2 months later, in October, was the search made. By that time, as court testimony has shown, material subpoenaed by Senate investigators was destroyed by Trie's order -- lost forever. After the story of the aborted search warrant was confirmed last week by Justice in briefing the House Government Reform Committee staff, Chairman Dan Burton subpoenaed records of what transpired two years ago. Typically, the department missed the subpoena's due date.

Such stonewalling by Attorney General Janet Reno long ago cooled the investigative fervor of the Republican-controlled Congress. But not Dan Burton's. Dogged despite intense abuse, the chairman still targets illegal foreign financing for President Clinton's reelection in 1996. What's more, Burton has cited new evidence in asking Reno to reconsider something she has steadfastly refused: naming an independent counsel.

This effort to breathe life into Burton's inquiry comes as Reno's lieutenants are putting a lid on the scandal that once threatened the Clinton presidency. Trie and fund-raiser John Huang both have entered guilty pleas for lenient sentences, with the Clinton White House and the Democratic National Committee off the hook.

The Justice Department's deadly delay in executing the Trie search warrant bears an eerie resemblance to its refusal to wiretap a scientist suspected of giving nuclear weapons secrets to China. In Trie's Little Rock trial last month, his office manager, Maria Mapli, testified under a grant of immunity that she followed Trie's orders to destroy information sought by Sen. Fred Thompson's investigation beginning in mid-1997.

According to committee sources, the FBI was aware of these plans and thus pressed for the search warrant -- only to be forestalled by Justice Department orders from Washington. "It is troubling to wonder what additional records that we will never know about may have been destroyed in this time frame," Burton said in a June 4 letter to Reno accompanying the subpoena.

The Burton committee's open-ended investigation, now extending to 2 1/2 years, still is seeking testimony from Trie and Huang. But as usual, the Justice Department is insisting on delays. Burton, expressing concern that in return for their "very light sentences" the "cooperation" by the two fund-raisers may be "very limited," wrote Reno: "The American people have a right to know what role these individuals played in the campaign fund-raising scandal and whether they are providing full and honest cooperation with the U.S. government."

In again calling for an independent counsel, Burton in a May 26 letter to Reno, cited two pieces of "credible" evidence that "coffees" at the White House were in fact fund-raisers. The first was the assertion in former White House special counsel Lanny Davis's new book that the "coffees were held to raise money during a political campaign. That's a fact." The second, retrieved from the computer of March Fong Eu, then U.S. ambassador to Micronesia, describes the coffees as fund-raisers presided over by "the `man' " -- presumably Bill Clinton.

But Reno, guided by her highly political aides, has been impervious to new evidence when she has refused to invoke the independent-counsel statute. That was made clear in a chilling interview on ABC's "Nightline" May 26 with former Justice Department campaign-finance task force chief Charles LaBella. His 94-page memo last year recommending an independent counsel, he indicated, was ignored because Reno had already made up her mind. "Nobody talked to me about that [report]," said LaBella. "Nobody ever debriefed me on my report." He was soon shuffled out of government service.

LaBella also revealed that he had been ordered by the deputy attorney general's office: "Don't talk to Congressman Burton." Complaining to me that "we have been blocked by the Justice Department" at every turn, Burton is one member of Congress who argues that an independent counsel mechanism is essential. The way the Justice Department handled the investigation of Charlie Trie two years ago explains why.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.