Attorney General Janet Reno failed to conduct a "thorough and impartial" investigation of President Clinton and Vice President Gore's possible roles in Democratic fund-raising scandals, the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee said yesterday.
In a blistering letter to Reno, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) complained that in FBI interviews concerning the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign scandals, neither the president nor the vice president was questioned on the sensitive subject of foreign contributions. Burton sent the letter and released the FBI interviews from 1997 and 1998 as his committee heard its second day of testimony from former Democratic fund-raiser John Huang.
"I am at a loss," Burton wrote, "to understand why you would tolerate an investigation that failed to ask the president a single question about the following subjects: James Riady, John Huang, Charlie Trie, Mark Middleton, and the Presidential Legal Expense Trust." Burton also complained that Gore was not questioned about "the Hsi Lai Temple, Maria Hsia, John Huang and James Riady."
"The fact that you and your attorneys have found it inappropriate to talk to the president about any of the foreign money aspects of the campaign finance scandal underscores my original concern that you are not able to investigate the president," Burton added.
In a statement released yesterday, the Justice Department said it "has conducted a vigorous investigation into allegations concerning campaign finance violations . . . interviews have been conducted so as to focus on the matters then under review."
Charles La Bella, who headed the Justice Department's campaign finance task force from fall 1997 to summer 1998, said that at the time there was no legitimate reason to ask about the campaign finance figures cited by Burton.
La Bella, who wrote Reno a memo arguing for the appointment of an independent counsel to pursue questions about the fund-raising scandals--a request Reno ultimately decided against--said prosecutors lacked sufficient information to raise questions about foreign contributions in 1997. The November 1997 questioning of Clinton focused on other issues, including whether the president had made political fund-raising calls from the White House.
"In my opinion, at that juncture of the investigations, open-ended questions about foreign money and other things would not have been ripe," La Bella said in an interview yesterday. "The investigations had not ripened to the point where you knew a set of facts sufficient to put those questions to someone like the president of the United States."
La Bella was no longer part of the task force when Clinton was asked a second round of questions in November 1998 about campaign finance issues concerning spending on "issue ads" by the Democratic National Committee and whether they should be attributed to specific campaigns and spending limits.
The president's lawyer, David E. Kendall, said yesterday that Burton had shed no new light on any campaign finance issues by releasing the law enforcement interviews, known as FBI 302s.
"The release of these interview notes is a dramatic nonevent," Kendall said. "The president has said most of this at his press conferences."
White House press secretary Joe Lockhart also dismissed Burton's letter, saying congressional Republicans were pursuing old, partisan allegations while "the president is helping bring peace to the Middle East."
In addition to the Clinton interviews, the Government Reform Committee released FBI 302s of Gore from 1997 and 1998. The questioning focused on political issue advertising and who should pay for it, whether fund-raising calls could appropriately be made from the vice president's office or residence, and other subjects.
La Bella emphasized that while he did not agree with Reno's conclusion that no independent counsel was required to investigate campaign finance, the attorney general does not deserve blame for the decision by prosecutors not to ask questions about foreign contributions prematurely.
"I'm not here to defend her," La Bella said of Reno's decision not to seek an independent counsel. "I'm just not going to let her get beaten up unfairly."
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.