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Pressured Reno Shakes Up Staff On Campaign Finance Investigation

Facing mounting pressure to seek appointment of an independent counsel to take over the Justice Department’s campaign finance investigation, Attorney General Janet Reno moved Tuesday to shake up the task force of career prosecutors and FBI agents she had assigned to the politically sensitive inquiry.

The department, in a statement, described Reno’s moves as merely an expansion of the task force’s staff. Other sources, however, said Reno is shaking up the team because she is upset by the pace of the investigation - and embarrassed that reporters are beating FBI agents in the search for some documents and witnesses.

The statement, issued in the names of both Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh, said the task force’s new chief prosecutor will be Charles La Bella, who is first assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego, and the new special FBI agent in charge of investigators will be James DeSarno Jr., a deputy assistant director in FBI headquarters.

Earlier this month, Reno acknowledged that before an article appeared in The Washington Post, she and her task force were unaware that some of the money raised in telephone calls by Vice President Al Gore may have gone directly to candidates, a possible violation of campaign finance law.

On Capitol Hill Tuesday, an aide to former Vice President Dan Quayle testified that Democratic fund-raiser John Huang made an overt pitch for money at a White House coffee he attended with President Clinton and several Thai business executives.

Karl Jackson, now president of the U.S.-Thailand Business Council, told a Senate committee hearing that his recollection of Huang’s solicitation is “absolutely firm” even though others who attended the early morning coffee in June 1996 said they either don’t recall Huang’s comments or they specifically recall that he did not issue a plea for cash.

“He (Huang) went on to say that elections cost money - lots and lots of money - and I believe everyone in this room wants to support the re-election of President Clinton,” Jackson testified. Jackson said Huang’s words addressing the group of about 12 people were “striking - it woke one up.”

Responding to questions about his recollection, Jackson said: “I am firm, sir. I realize I’m under oath.”

Soliciting campaign funds in the White House is illegal under campaign finance laws. Jackson acknowledged that as a Republican, he would be unlikely to contribute to a Democratic presidential campaign.

Democrats on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., noted that the White House coffee incident, even if it did take place as Jackson described, happened at just one of the 102 coffees scheduled in 1996 and involved the remarks of only one person, Huang.

Tags: ethics