By James Warren and Naftali Bendavid, Washington Bureau.
Chief Washington correspondent William
Neikirk contributed to this report.
September 2, 1998
Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, who has paved the
way for six outside investigations of Clinton administration colleagues,
began a review Tuesday of whether a former top White House aide
committed perjury before a Senate committee.
The preliminary look into former Deputy Chief
of Staff Harold Ickes' testimony regarding 1996 campaign fundraising
comes days after Reno triggered a similar 90-day review of Vice
President Al Gore's fundraising practices. Both Ickes and Gore
vigorously deny any illegality.
For a White House already under political
siege from the Monica Lewinsky controversy, the timing could not
be much worse. Reno could recommend that independent counsels
be chosen to investigate separately both Ickes and Gore.
Even more damaging than the specific allegations
is the prospect of yet another independent counsel investigation
that evolves to look generally into 1996 campaign fundraising practices that many experts concede
made a mockery of already porous election guidelines. This would
be the seventh independent counsel selected during the Clinton
Jan Baran, a prominent Republican election
lawyer, sought to put the new investigation in perspective. "It's
not as big a deal as the Gore preliminary inquiry, but because
of Ickes' role in the 1996 campaign, it's a potentially big deal,"
Many contend that Ickes essentially ran the
Clinton-Gore re-election effort from his White House post, virtually
erasing any distinction between the White House and the Clinton
Independent counsels are looking into President
Clinton, former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, former Housing
Secretary Henry Cisneros, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and Interior
Secretary Bruce Babbitt. A sixth investigation that was probing
Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was scrapped after he died in a plane
Reno has come under increasing pressure to
request an independent counsel with a broad mandate to investigate
all alleged fundraising abuses in the 1996 campaign.
FBI Director Louis Freeh has urged her to
do so, as has the just-departed chief of Reno's own campaign finance
task force, Charles LaBella. The existence of memos from both
men quickly became public.
The law requires the appointment of an independent
counsel when strong evidence emerges of wrongdoing against certain
high-level officials, such as the president, vice president and
Ickes does not fall into this category, but
Reno is allowed to seek an independent counsel to investigate
officials such as Ickes if she concludes a Justice Department
inquiry would create a conflict of interest. That could be the
case with Ickes, because he was so vital to the Clinton re-election
Like many other subjects of Washington investigations,
the allegations against Ickes do not involve direct wrongdoing,
but rather his purported attempts to cover up his activities.
Reno's investigation focuses on whether Ickes
lied to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee about helping
the International Brotherhood of Teamsters during a strike, in
order to persuade the union to support Democrats.
When the Governmental Affairs Committee,
chaired by Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), looked into the 1996
Clinton-Gore re election effort in the summer of 1997, Ickes was
one of the witnesses.
Reno's investigation was prompted by Ickes'
answers regarding the White House's relationship with the Teamsters
on several matters, including the unions' dispute with Diamond
Walnut Growers in California.
The Teamsters, who tended to donate to Republicans
in recent presidential campaigns, were major contributors to the Clinton-Gore campaign. Ickes told committee
investigators that he could not recall the White House doing anything
to help the union during its confrontation with Diamond Walnut
Reno apparently was influenced by evidence
that Ickes prodded another administration official, then-Trade
Representative Mickey Kantor, to call the company's top executive
in an attempt to settle the strike.
Ickes has denied misleading the Senate panel. On Tuesday, Ickes' lawyers Robert Bennett and Amy Sabrin, who also represent Clinton, issued another denial.
"Mr. Ickes has been called upon to testify
some 20 times as a result of his three years of White House service,"
they said. "He has testified truthfully on all occasions."
Reno has so far sought two independent counsels
related to the campaign finance controversy, those investigating
Herman and Babbitt. Both probes are focused on narrow issues,
as would be any independent counsels appointed to look into Ickes
That infuriates Republicans, who have complained
that Reno is avoiding an independent counsel who would investigate
the entire array of fundraising allegations, which range from
illegal foreign contributions to the improper trading of White
House access for donations.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the
Senate Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that Reno has no excuse
for not calling for an independent counsel with "broad authority."
Asked what would happen if she limits the scope of an Ickes independent
counsel, Hatch said, "If she tries to limit it in any way,
we will know this is pure and simple stonewalling."
Thompson made a similar point. His committee
referred the Ickes perjury allegation to the Justice Department
after his testimony.
Reacting to Tuesday's announcement, Thompson
said, "This, of course, is just another small piece of the
overall fundraising scandal of 1996 for which the attorney general
still refuses to seek an independent counsel, as called for by
the committee, the FBI director, and the head of the campaign
finance task force."
Reno and Freeh are scheduled to meet Wednesday
with congressional leaders to brief them on the contents of the
controversial LaBella memo, and LaBella will be present.
Copyright 1998, The Tribune Company.