A Dubious Decision

Janet Reno has made her decision, but we can't help wishing she had heeded FBI chief Louis Freeh. Mr. Freeh was reported to have counseled the attorney general to appoint an independent counsel to look into allegations of wrongdoing by high administration officials as they raised money for the 1996 campaign.

Freeh's concern, widely shared, is that Ms. Reno's Justice Department is too politically encumbered to pursue the credible, objective investigation needed to follow allegations of fund-raising misdeeds wherever they may lead. The perception of conflict of interest - with the administration essentially investigating itself - would be difficult, if not impossible, to dispel.

That concern is particularly valid if the scope of investigation broadens to include such questions as the likely infraction of federal election law by funneling so-called "soft" dollars into advertising that directly aided the Clinton-Gore campaign. "Soft money," you'll recall, is supposed to go to "party-building," such as get-out-the vote drives. The soft-hard distinction virtually disappeared last year. Vice President Gore's White House solicitation of "soft" funds generated thousands in hard money that went directly to the campaign war chest.

Those phone solicitations were the narrow focus Reno used to decide whether a special counsel was warranted. Even there, we wonder. The law prohibiting the solicitation of campaign funds on federal property may have originally been aimed at shakedowns of federal employees in the 1880s. But, if corruptive misuse of power is the target, its language can be aptly applied to 1990s solicitation of deep-pocketed contributors.

Then there are the dangling pieces of evidence pointing to illegal foreign contributions to Clinton-Gore.

The attorney general called all this a "big blob" of allegation, not the specific evidence of felony needed to trigger an independent counsel. The public's interest demands that this "blob" be probed, not left hanging.

That means continued work by Reno's team, which may yet lead to an independent counsel. Meanwhile, we hope congressional hearings will throw more light on Freeh's concerns.

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