Why Reno and FBI Differ on Probes

US attorney general explains her decision on special prosecutor to Congress tomorrow.

Democratic Party fund-raising woes are far from over, despite Attorney General Reno's decision last week to not name an independent counsel to investigate White House cash solicitation calls.

To begin with, Ms. Reno must make what will likely be an uncomfortable appearance before a House panel tomorrow, to explain why she rejected FBI Director Louis Freeh's advice that an independent counsel was needed. In addition, Federal indictments of low-level Democratic fund-raisers could come soon.

The White House itself says it is still being investigated by 20 GOP-led congressional committees or subcommittees. Some Democrats had hoped the Reno decision would be the beginning of the end of this issue. Right now it looks more like the end of the beginning.

"It will continue to be a subject of discussion ... I don't think anything changes very much, to be candid," says White House spokesman Mike McCurry.

One reason for the likely persistence of loud charges about White House fund-raising in general, and the Reno decision in particular, is the rift within the administration itself that the decision revealed.

Reno, in essence, examined the trees. She said no special prosecutor was necessary because there was no clear certainty that the particular acts in question - fund-raising phone calls made from government property by the president and vice president - broke the law.

Mr. Freeh, by contrast, looked at the forest. In a memo on the subject leaked to the press last week, he argued that there's so much smoke coming from the fund-raising issue that, without an outside person to investigate the mess, it will inevitably look as if the Justice Department is just covering up White House activities.

Historic clashes

The FBI director is a subordinate of the attorney general - technically. They have a history of independence, however. J. Edgar Hoover feuded with Robert Kennedy over wiretaps put on Martin Luther King Jr., among other things. During the Bush administration, FBI head William Sessions felt Attorney General Richard Thornburgh was unfairly trying to limit his contacts with Congress.

Freeh now says he accepts Reno's decision, and he is likely to try to play down this rift as much as possible when he, too, appears before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee tomorrow.

But he's already provided Republicans with the equivalent of covering fire. The GOP can now argue that his memo proves that many of its charges against the Clinton team may have substance and aren't just the result of partisan politics. It's an argument they are likely to make in many forums, for months to come.

The administration isn't going to hand them the Freeh memo voluntarily, however. So congressional Republicans issued a subpoena for it on Friday - setting up a legal confrontation with the White House.

Meanwhile, the legal implications of Reno's move for the White House are mixed. Sure, there won't be a new special prosecutor sending subpoenas as fast as a fax machine can spit them out - a decision that will save both the president and the veep hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal legal costs. But attorneys at the Justice Department itself are continuing to probe the whole blob-like fund-raising affair.

At issue in Reno's decision "wasn't whether [Clinton and Gore] had done anything wrong," points out Jeffrey Tulis, a political scientist at the University of Texas. "It was whether they had done anything wrong that required an independent prosecutor."

The campaign-finance squad at the Justice Department has already served 500 subpoenas of its own and conducted hundreds of interviews. Grand juries have been empaneled in Washington and Los Angeles. Indictments against lesser figures are likely.

At the top of the hit list: Democratic fund-raisers Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie and Pauline Kanchanalak. Both are suspected of providing an illegal channel for foreign money to enter a US campaign. Both have also already fled the country.

Reno is also still weighing yet another call for an independent counsel - this time to investigate whether Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt allowed politics to dictate his decision to reject an Indian casino project in Wisconsin. Such a prosecutor might look at Clinton and Gore, after all.

Reform moves

If nothing else, the dizzying array of independent counsel decisions is raising again the issue of reform of the special-prosecutor statute.

"You end up with a special prosecutor being raised as a possibility for virtually everything these days," says W. Michael Johnston, an expert on political corruption at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee chairman Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee said last week that he'll hold hearings exploring reform of the independent-counsel statute next year.

The law, originally passed in 1978, is up for renewal in 1999. Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, have said they think the current situation may be the beginning of the end for the statute.

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