Reno Handling of Waco Standoff No Surprise to Former Associates

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

JANET RENO has never been one to shrink from public accountability. As state prosecutor for Dade County, she would hear from critics who threatened to call the newspaper over a disagreement. She would routinely give them the telephone number for the Miami Herald and offer the names of editors or reporters to contact.

The blunt talk and candid feeling that Ms. Reno, now the United States attorney general, has shown since the Waco tragedy run deep in her personal history, according to those who have known her professionally over the years.

The first woman in US history to join a president's inner Cabinet, she is also the first Clinton Cabinet member to be run through the wringer of public crisis.

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"Typical Janet," says attorney George Yoss of Reno's the-buck-stops-with-me performance. Mr. Yoss, who was Reno's first chief assistant for eight years in the state attorney's office here, says, "If she screws up, she'll tell you she screwed up. If you threaten to call the newspaper, she'll give you the phone number."

"She's unquestionably the best person to walk into a Justice Department that's full of flab and mirrors and smoke," says Dade juvenile court Judge Tom Petersen, also a longtime first chief assistant to Reno. "She'll either emerge victorious or they'll carry her out on her shield."

Former associates paint a portrait of Reno as unvarnished, scrupulously straight-arrow, yet an astute popular politician - probably the most powerful elected official in Dade County for a dozen years. She lives for her work to the point that aides who depart feel resented as disloyal. She is intense and demanding, strong-willed and impatient, decisive to the point of rigidity. She never lets a detail drop or starts a program without following through. She usually sets her own agenda, even on committees r un by others, and it is difficult to change her mind once it is set.

She is a decidedly liberal Democrat who encouraged some nontraditional ways of dealing with crime that smack as much of social work as of law enforcement. She has a special concern for children that even her critics credit as heartfelt.

"She's a very sensitive person," says former Miami Police Chief Ken Harms, "in spite of the harsh words you hear from her from time to time."

Judge Petersen describes her as an "evangelist" on children's issues. She proselytized at every chance with what he refers to as the "womb speech." In recent years, her thrust on juvenile crime was to emphasize day care and prenatal care for very young children as a long-term solution.

Yoss says she always had a strong interest in the victims of crime, especially children and the elderly. Prosecutors under Reno needed top-level approval to accept a plea bargain in a case of elder abuse.

By the conventional measure of a prosecutor - conviction rates - Reno's office was at best mediocre. For the population and number of crimes, most Florida counties sent a higher share to jail.

Mr. Harms said police administrators did not necessarily view her as soft on crime, but they were frustrated with how ineffective the justice system seemed to be in Dade. He doesn't lay all the responsibility on her, but believes she was more astute as a politician than effective at converting arrests into convictions.

She also has a strong interest in dealing with many cases outside of the traditional criminal courts. In 1977, she proposed a domestic violence program that diverted many cases into counseling rather than criminal trials. It still operates. Three years ago, the local courts set up a special drug court that sends most first- and second-time offenders into treatment rather than to prison. She has encouraged such special courts, such as for serious repeat offenders, but the judiciary has been reluctant to c reate them.

In 1984 her top assistant, Mr. Petersen, went on extended leave from his duties in the office to work at strengthening community ties in a few of the neighborhoods that consistently generated the most criminals. He ended up setting up little convenience stores staffed by welfare mothers in the middle of housing projects.

The stores became healthy, functioning hearts of activity in the projects, surrounded by day-care centers and other public services. But progress was constantly eroded by waves of crack addiction in the projects, and they were closed down by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the Liberty City riots of 1986.

Reno was always skeptical of the stores, Petersen says, because they involved money, therefore risk. She was more interested in day-care centers. But she became involved and supportive. "I think Janet is a kind-hearted person who believes in the inherent goodness of mankind, and that good treatment will work more often than not," Harms says.

Reno is not an easy person to work for - in part because her follow-through is meticulous. Aides lived in fear of her "little black book." In it, she carried long lists of office assignments that she would go through in meetings, checking on everyone's progress. Aides joked about hiding or stealing it, but it would not have helped, Yoss says, because she would remember everything anyway.

Typically, he says, he would write a close-out memo on a case, and she would send it back with a list of questions. He would redo it and she would send it back with more questions, and so on until it would sit on her desk for a few months until she decided it was ready. She delegated, but not very much.

Yoss also recalls firing someone three times and Reno's rehiring the person three times to offer another chance.

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