FBI Director Louis Freeh acknowledged Wednesday that he believes there is enough evidence of possible wrongdoing to appoint an independent prosecutor in the White House campaign finance scandal.
After dodging pointed questions from Republicans on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee through two days of hearings, Freeh conceded he had recommended an independent inquiry to Attorney General Janet Reno based on two criteria.
One is that Reno, as an appointee of President Clinton, has an unavoidable conflict of interest in leading the probe herself. The other is that there appears to be enough specific and credible evidence to suggest crimes had been committed in the Democrats’ campaign fund raising.
Earlier, during hours at the witness table, Freeh had said only that several factors had prompted his recommendation for seeking an independent counsel, and he had indicated an apparent conflict of interest was one of them.
But under persistent questioning Wednesday from Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., a former U.S. attorney, Freeh agreed that the law requires only those two criteria to establish the need for an independent inquiry.
“There are only two bases under which an independent counsel can be appointed,” Barr said to Freeh, noting that they had to be the premises on which the FBI director had based his recommendation to Reno.
Freeh reluctantly grunted his assent.
During a marathon session before the committee Tuesday, both Freeh and Reno resisted every effort by committee interrogators to characterize the thrust of the FBI chief’s written recommendation to Reno or provide any details about his reasoning.
Last week, committee Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., issued a subpoena for the document to be produced at noon Tuesday. But Reno and Freeh did not deliver it, arguing it would compromise the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation of the scandal.
Committee Republicans threatened to cite the two officials for contempt of Congress for failing to deliver the memo. But Burton pulled back from that Wednesday. He said he is “trying to work things out” with Reno and Freeh to release an edited version of Freeh’s memo that would not reveal confidential or sensitive information about the investigation itself.
In other testimony Wednesday, Freeh said:
There has been no effort by Reno or the Justice Department to cover up any aspect of the investigation of President Clinton’s and Vice President Al Gore’s questionable money-raising activities during the 1996 election campaign.
Apart from disagreements between FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors over the timing of witness interviews in the case, there has been no effort by political appointees at the Justice Department to impede the investigation.
There has been no attempt “as far as I can see” at political interference in the FBI’s role in the inquiry.
The investigation of Gore’s role in raising money for the campaign is still “fully open.”
The FBI has assigned 54 special agents and 39 supporting personnel members to the Justice Department task force in the case. “It’s a major investigation,” Freeh told the committee.