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 administration.

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," Baran said.

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 campaign.

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 crash.

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 Cabinet members.

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 campaign.

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 Growers.

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 or Gore.

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.

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