Janet Reno's politicized Justice Department, revealing little and admitting nothing, after seven years has won the war against Republican members of Congress who are willing to just wait for her to leave in 2001.
But not Dan Burton. The relentless chairman of the House Government Reform Committee is still after the attorney general--even in this uneventful holiday season.
While other lawmakers used the recess to vacation and junket, Burton has assailed Reno on two seemingly dissimilar fronts. On Dec. 16, he demanded a response from her as to why Bill Clinton and Al Gore were not asked appropriate questions about campaign finance scandals. On Dec. 11, he revealed that the Justice Department obstructed exposing the record of Puerto Rican nationalists pardoned by the president.
Those unconnected issues share a common method of operation. Influenced by political operatives in the department, Reno staves off requests for information whenever the president and vice president are concerned. The FBI is restricted and deprived of information. Burton is harassed continuously by his committee's top Democrat, Rep. Henry Waxman of California.
Waxman was unhappy two weeks ago when the committee spent three days questioning former Democratic fund-raiser and ex-assistant secretary of commerce John Huang (after waiting three years). On the third day, Burton revealed that Justice Department lawyers in their interrogation of President Clinton and Vice President Gore in 1997 and 1998 asked nothing about Huang.
Huang, who got one year's probation in a plea bargain with Justice, collected at least $1.6 million in illegal foreign contributions. But he was not the only principal ignored by Reno's lawyers. They asked nothing about James Riady, the Indonesian billionaire and Huang's former employer, or fund-raiser Yah Lin (Charlie) Trie. Nor did they ask Gore about his 1996 fund-raiser at a Los Angeles Buddhist temple. Nothing was asked about foreign money.
These omissions follow Reno's public promise, after refusing to name independent counsels, that she would "follow every lead, wherever it goes."
In his Dec. 16 letter, Burton asked: "What am I to think of an investigation that has failed to ask key witnesses any questions about the most important subjects in what has allegedly been one of the largest investigations ever undertaken by the Justice Department?"
At the Huang hearing, Waxman accused Burton of defaming the FBI agents who conducted the interviews. But the interrogation was under the control of Justice, which instructed that foreign money was not to be addressed. Leading the team questioning in November 1997 was Lee J. Radek, chief of the Criminal Division's Public Integrity Section and a principal manipulator of Reno in getting her to reject independent counsels.
Also present was Charles LaBella, then head of the campaign finance task force and Radek's unsuccessful adversary in seeking an independent investigation. LaBella has publicly defended Reno on grounds that the investigation was not ready for foreign money questions, adding that he expected the issue would be raised at subsequent interviews. But by 1998 when Clinton and Gore were questioned again, LaBella had been railroaded out of the government for publicly urging independent counsels, and again the questions went unasked. Considering the way he has been treated, it is no surprise that LaBella is circumspect.
Burton's complaint with the president's pardoning FALN Puerto Rican nationalists imprisoned for terrorism: Justice's "threat assessments," indicating a potential for violent action, were denied to his committee. "The Justice Department simply refuses," Burton contended in a Dec. 10 report, "to admit that it kept this document from Congress during the period when public and media interest in this subject were at their most intense." Nor was the FBI informed of meetings that its representatives were supposed to attend, about whether to release these documents.
Burton plans hearings in January on the FALN pardons. Henry Waxman, the only Democrat present, protested Huang's testimony and can be counted on to obstruct this inquiry. Television is guaranteed to ignore the event, and newspapers will not make much of it. So, many Republicans will join the White House in hoping that Dan Burton will give up a lost cause. But he will never cease trying to cope with the bland, implacable Janet Reno.
(c) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.