Reno Rejects Special Counsel Attorney General Says Facts Don’t Justify Independent Fund-Raising Investigation
Attorney General Janet Reno, in one of the most politically charged decisions of her tenure, decided Tuesday not to seek an independent counsel to investigate telephone fund-raising calls made by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
Under pressure from congressional Republicans and even FBI Director Louis Freeh to request a special counsel, Reno said the facts in the case do not justify that action.
But she emphasized the Justice Department’s fund-raising probe is continuing and said she would not hesitate to seek an independent counsel if evidence of criminal wrong-doing emerges.
“This decision was mine, and it was based on the facts and the law, not pressure, politics or any other factor,” Reno said during a news conference at which she announced her action.
Congressional Republicans immediately assailed Reno.
“When all the quibbling, lint-picking and fine distinctions are made, this matter all boils down to a loud and clear conflict of interest between the attorney general’s duty to the public to enforce the law and her personal loyalty to the president who elevated her to the top law enforcement post in the land,” said Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., said: “Once again, the attorney general had the opportunity to do the right thing. Once again, she has failed. I am absolutely flabbergasted.” Burton announced he would request that Reno and Freeh come to Capitol Hill next week to explain their differing views.
Republicans were bolstered by revelations this week that Freeh had written a memo to Reno saying he thinks it is a conflict of interest for the Justice Department to investigate the fund-raising practices of the White House. The thrust of Freeh’s memo was leaked to some news organizations, and late Tuesday morning, Reno went to FBI headquarters to meet briefly with him.
The dispute highlights the strained relations between the two law enforcement agencies. The leaking of Freeh’s concerns was seen as a way to strengthen his position with Republicans in Congress and demonstrate the FBI’s independence from the White House. The bureau has felt burned by the White House because of several high-profile incidents, such as the time the White House improperly requested and received hundreds of confidential FBI files.
During her news conference, Reno praised Freeh’s professionalism and conduct but said it was her decision in the end. “I alone am responsible for it under the law,” she said, declining to talk about their morning conversation.
After Reno’s news conference, Freeh issued a public statement that he has a “strong and amicable” relationship with Reno. He said he appreciated “the full opportunity given the FBI to express our views and recommendations … Lawyers and investigators can and often do disagree. I and all of my colleagues in the FBI respect her decision and understand fully that it is the attorney general’s by law to make.”
A 120-person Justice Department task force has been investigating allegations of criminal wrongdoing in the 1996 presidential election, including fund-raising calls made by Clinton and Gore. An obscure federal law prohibits soliciting campaign contributions from federal property, but the Justice Department never has prosecuted anyone for making such telephone calls.
Reno said investigators uncovered three occasions when the president placed fund-raising-related calls from the White House. Two occasions were simply thank-you calls, she said. But telephone records, investigative interviews and the president’s schedule all show the third set of calls was made from the White House residence, not from the Oval Office, which is not against the law, Reno said.
Reno also said investigators found Gore made calls from his office to about 45 people in 1995 and 1996 to raise money for the Democratic National Committee. Reno said investigators found Gore solicited money only for generic party-building activities, not money for specific candidates, which is not against the law.
She said investigators found no evidence that Gore was aware of a DNC practice of using some of the money for candidates. But she said the department’s investigation would look into that practice by the party.
After Reno’s announcement, Clinton issued a one-line statement: “The attorney general made her decision based on a careful review of the law and the facts, and that’s as it should be.”
Gore also took a swipe at Republican critics, saying “… the same people who are making the partisan attacks are the ones who are blocking campaign-finance reform.”
Reno also rejected an independent counsel to probe allegations that former Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary solicited a $25,000 charitable donation in exchange for meeting with Chinese businessmen.
Reno’s decisions were complicated by the rift between the Justice Department and the FBI.
Oliver “Buck” Revell, a former top FBI official, called the rare public dispute between Reno and Freeh “unfortunate.”
“It undermines the integrity of the attorney general’s decision-making process,” he said. “To have it leaked and bandied about is unethical and certainly unprofessional.”
John Barrett, a law professor at St. John’s University in New York City, said the dispute between Freeh and Reno centers on different interpretations of the independent counsel law. The law, he said, is two-pronged, requiring an independent counsel if there is an allegation of criminal activity by a covered person, such as the president or vice president, or if it would be a conflict of interest to investigate the administration.
“Reno is applying the first prong, and Freeh is focusing on the second,” Barrett said. “She is saying there is no specific, credible information that needs further investigation indicating a covered person has committed a crime that the Justice Department typically would prosecute. And he is saying this is one of those cases where ordinary department prosecution isn’t credible, and we just need to get it out of the building.”
Congressional Republicans have said Reno is focusing too narrowly on the telephone calls and is ignoring a broad range of other improprieties.
The 114-year-old law that prohibits soliciting campaign contributions in federal offices was intended to protect federal workers from shakedowns by their bosses. The law has never been used to prosecute officials for telephoning private citizens at home or work in search of donations. The independent counsel law requires Reno to follow past Justice Department practice.