Reno: Follow the Money

For two years, Attorney General Janet Reno has reminded us of that ancient math conundrum:

If a person steps halfway toward a door, then halfway again and again, she'll get closer; but she'll always have halfway still to go.

It's been a long, slow process, but the tenacious Ms. Reno has edged closer and closer to the historically important threshold she now really ought to cross. That's a full-fledged investigation by an independent counsel of alleged White House fund-raising illegalities in 1996.

The attorney general now has opened 90-day inquiries into possible fund-raising misdeeds involving: (1) Vice President Gore's White House "dialing for dollars," (2) deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes's role in a Teamsters Union deal to hide campaign money-trading, and (3) President Clinton's role in shaping party "issue ads" that became, in effect, Clinton-Gore ads exceeding spending limits.

All three deserve a dispassionate probe followed by full public airing.

But Ms. Reno also ought to take a fourth step. That is an independent inquiry into even more troubling allegations of the wooing and/or accepting of illegal foreign campaign contributions. That may turn out to have been more a case of money-grubbing bumbling by campaign officials than of selling the vague prospect of favorable foreign policy decisions. But the latter possibility is so disturbing that it should be thoroughly explored, if only to dispel rumors and public concern.

Ms. Reno's reluctance has not been the only obstacle to airing the facts. White House defenses also intrude.

Mr. Clinton's lawyers argue that the "issue ads" he helped design were carefully vetted by legal specialists on campaign funding law. So, even if Ms. Reno decides to turn the matter over to an independent investigator, the issue ads matter may be subject to later court challenge.

Furthermore, only "covered persons" - an attorney general's boss (the president) and his official family (White House command staff and Cabinet officials) - merit probes by independent counsels. It's unfair, perhaps, that fund-raising by Bob Dole or any other candidate accepting federal matching funds would not be subject to such scrutiny. But that's the price of holding power.

Despite these hazards, we trust Ms. Reno will press ahead. She is an honorable public servant. She has not hesitated to show her independence in asking the courts for outside probes of other allegations against administration colleagues. She has not hesitated to expand Judge Starr's mandate. She should not hesitate now. Money power in Washington is too important a matter to ignore.

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