Janet Reno Unbowed Amid Fund-Raising Storm

Republicans question her independence after key decision this week.

As attorney general in one of the most scandal-plagued administrations in recent history, Janet Reno has remained an outsider, somewhat aloof from the White House.

She's routinely described as fair, nonpolitical, and independent. Indeed, she's one of the few attorneys general since the late 1800s who has not been a personal friend of the president.

But in refusing - for the fourth time - to recommend appointment of a special counsel to investigate alleged campaign fund-raising abuses by Democrats, Ms. Reno is putting her reputation on the line.

Some congressional Republicans are now questioning whether Reno might have soft pedaled the fund-raising case as payback for being reappointed attorney general by President Clinton earlier this year.

If that is the case, then investigators working for two congressional committees now probing the Democratic fund-raising scandal should be in a good position in several months to determine whether Reno is engaging in a form of obstruction of justice.

The attorney general will have an opportunity April 16 to personally explain to Senate critics her refusal this week to recommend appointment of a special counsel to investigate alleged Democratic fund-raising abuses.

The potential conflicts inherent in her decision are immediately apparent.

"There is a clear conflict of interest when the attorney general appointed by the president is called upon to investigate possible illegal acts by the vice president and other high-ranking administration officials," says Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.

A squeaky-clean career

Analysts say there's nothing in Reno's past to suggest she would risk breaking federal laws to help the president, vice president, or Democratic Party. Her aloofness from the White House is illustrated by a recent disclosure about how the Justice Department handled sensitive intelligence regarding possible efforts by China to influence US elections via illegal campaign contributions.

The Justice Department's FBI briefed two National Security Council staff members on the matter, but the information evidently never reached Mr. Clinton. Reno has said that she tried to telephone national security adviser Anthony Lake with the information, but that she was unable to reach him and didn't follow up.

Reno's independent position in the Clinton Cabinet is unusual, particularly in an administration beset by legal and ethical scandals. She had no prior history with Clinton before joining the administration in 1993 as his third choice for attorney general. And she is not considered a confidante of the president or first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The Arkansas insider who filled that role at the Justice Department was Webster Hubbell. Mr. Hubbell served as Reno's deputy until he was forced from office in April 1994 amid allegations that he defrauded his former law partners in Arkansas of nearly $500,000.

More recently, Hubbell has been in the news following press reports that wealthy political supporters of Clinton paid Hubbell more than $400,000 at a time when he was under investigation by the Whitewater special counsel. Administration critics say the payments look like hush money to prevent Hubbell from cooperating in the Whitewater investigation.

The president says he played no role in arranging the payments and that there was nothing sinister behind them. They were made solely to help a friend in need, he says.

In rejecting the congressional call for an independent prosecutor, Reno says she was guided by requirements set out in the law governing the appointment of an independent counsel, rather than by any partisan or administration interests.

She says the matter is being investigated "vigorously and diligently" by a task force of career Justice Department prosecutors and some 30 FBI agents.

"The department has a long history of investigating allegations of criminal activity by high-ranking government officials without fear or favor, and will do so in this case," she says. "I have confidence that the career professionals in the department will investigate this matter in a fashion that will satisfy the American people that justice has been done."

So far, Reno says, the task force has uncovered no "specific, credible evidence'' that any senior administration officials covered by the independent-counsel law committed any federal crimes.

In a 10-page letter to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, Reno says that in her view no laws were violated by Vice President Al Gore's use of his White House office telephone to solicit campaign donations.

Federal law prohibits soliciting campaign contributions in government buildings.

Reno says Mr. Gore charged the calls to a nongovernment credit card. The calls also involved so-called soft money, rather than the more closely regulated "hard" dollars that pay for presidential campaigns.

She also said that no laws appeared to be broken during White House sleepovers, coffees, and other events held for potential contributors, and that possible efforts by the Chinese government to influence American elections do not appear at this point to have involved senior administration officials.

Demands to 'explain yourself'

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (D) of Georgia has suggested that Reno should be called before the House Judiciary Committee to explain her decision.

The chairman of that committee, Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, says he believes Reno is acting in good faith, keeping the investigation in the hands of career prosecutors at the Justice Department. But he says she is misreading both the letter and spirit of the independent counsel statute.

"The attorney general failed to recognize, at the very least, the obvious political conflict these allegations of wrongdoing create for her and other political appointees within the Justice Department," he says.

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