As it downsizes and gets ready to go out of business, the Justice Department's task force on campaign finance is acting strangely. It lists as "ongoing" long-dormant cases that could embarrass President Clinton. It has classed as "inactive" the probe of an inquiry into a major fixer of illegal Chinese campaign contributions. And, it still lists as "active" an inquiry that appeared to be surely dead: targeting former Republican national chairman Haley Barbour.
This is the kind of information that Attorney General Janet Reno would not reveal to Congress, much less to the public. The status of the task force's investigation is disclosed in a three-page, single-spaced memo dated June 4, which was not leaked by the zippered-up Justice Department but was inadvertently released. In the intervening two months, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder has been trying desperately to retrieve all errant copies.
No wonder. The cryptic document tends to confirm suspected politicization at Justice. That is the interpretation of Reno's most severe congressional critic: Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. Shown a copy of the document, Burton told me: "The attorney general was blocking for the president to keep us from holding hearings."
Holder refused to discuss with me the individual cases because of grand jury regulations and privacy laws. He added it would be "fundamentally unfair" to reveal the name of anyone targeted. But in fact, the identity of anyone mentioned here long ago became public through campaign scandal news reports. A careful reading of the document finds many surprises.
Surprise No. 1: Listed among the "ongoing investigations" are former Democratic national chairman Don Fowler and businessman Roger Tamraz. Nothing has been heard for nearly two years about allegations that Fowler falsely denied gaining White House access for Tamraz in return for campaign contributions. Since Burton's investigating committee cannot question anybody targeted in an active Justice case, are these investigations kept open purely in order to frustrate Republican inquiries?
Surprise No. 2: Also in the "ongoing" category is the Lippo Group, the Asian conglomerate that poured money into Clinton's 1996 campaign. The Burton committee last year cited $1.2 million in illegal contributions from Lippo, but here, too, it has been forestalled by a Justice proceeding that shows no progress.
Surprise No. 3: Former Clinton White House aide Mark Middleton, accused of engineering campaign loans, was stricken off the task force's list of investigations "likely to be [closed] shortly" and added to the "ongoing" list with this notation: "reinvigorated in light of Trie debriefing." Just what the Justice Department learned from Clinton fund-raiser Charlie Trie, who has made a plea bargain, is a mystery.
Surprise No. 4: Liu Chao Ying, the daughter of a highly influential Chinese general, is on the list of "pending inactive investigations." A top aerospace official, she brought Clinton fund-raiser Johnny Chung into high-level official circles in Beijing, just as she was involved in trying to fix up China's missile technology. Why should her case be inactive?
Surprise No. 5: After two years of facing gossamer charges involving 1996 Republican soft-money contributions from abroad, GOP insider Barbour -- now a member of George W. Bush's "exploratory" committee -- is still on the "ongoing" list. The election law's statute of limitations ran out 18 months ago, and nobody really expects the Justice Department to seek a conspiracy indictment. Is Barbour still listed purely for political leverage?
Surprise No. 6: Nearly two years after Burton was accused of trying to shake down a lobbyist, Reno's arch-enemy is now listed in the "shortly-to-be-closed" category with this notation: "Closing memo sent to Public Integrity section of Justice Department." Was this fruitless investigation kept open for so long, with no announcement of the "shortly" designation and without even notifying Burton, in order to give the attorney general a club?
The document is filled with other enticing glimpses into Reno's secret recesses. For example, an unpublicized investigation of five unnamed congressmen for receiving payments from Libya has been transferred to prosecutors in New York and Newark. But more broadly, these revelations show how politicized the Department of Justice has become. Oversight hearings by the House Judiciary Committee are long overdue.
(C)1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.