By William Neikirk, Washington Bureau.
September 3, 1998
Atty. Gen. Janet Reno's congressional critics
began to back away from a threatened contempt of Congress citation
Wednesday but still insisted that she recommend appointing an
independent counsel to investigate fundraising abuses in the 1996
Reno came to an extraordinary three-hour
meeting with leaders of investigative committees in the House
and Senate, allowed them to read edited internal memos from Justice
Department officials who had urged her to name an independent
counsel, and answered questions on why she didn't.
Reno in early August refused to produce the
memos under a subpoena from the House Government Reform and Oversight
Committee, prompting the panel to recommend to the House that
she be held in contempt. The fact that she brought the documents
to Wednesday's session, and allowed invited members to read them,
appeared to give Republicans the chance to pull back from a contempt
citation that might not have passed anyway.
Those who attended said the memos were so
heavily edited, in part because some involved grand jury materials,
that they wondered whether some of the contents had been stricken
Even so, one Republican source who read the
memos said they were "devastating" and suggested the
attorney general should have named an independent counsel last
Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the
House Judiciary Committee, confirmed that the contempt citation
was discussed. "We all are making an effort to reach an accommodation,"
he said. Asked if a contempt citation could be avoided, Hyde added,
"I think it can be, but we're not there yet."
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the
Senate Judiciary Committee who summoned Reno to the meeting in
his office, said it was a "solid first step
toward resolution of this dispute." But with the extensive
editing, he said, Reno was not "completely forthcoming with
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the
government reform panel, said he would talk to his staff and committee
about whether the contempt citation should be dropped in view
of Reno's decision to produce the memos.
He, too, made clear that he thought Reno
made the wrong decision in refusing to name an independent counsel,
based on his reading of the memos.
"I think the parts we read were very
interesting and very helpful and reinforced my view that the attorney
general was trying to protect the president and vice president"
in refusing to recommend appointment of an independent counsel
last year, Burton said.
After the session, both Burton and Hatch
said that Reno should name an independent counsel to investigate
all aspects of the fundraising scandal, not just elements of it.
On the Senate floor, Hatch said the memos
by FBI Director Louis Freeh and Charles LaBella, who had headed
Reno's task force looking into the fundraising allegations, provided
"strong, convincing arguments" in favor of an independent
counsel. LaBella attended the meeting, but not Freeh.
Hatch said that when he asked Reno why she
had rejected recommendations, "the answers I received were
vague, insufficient or unconvincing."
Reno has triggered two 90-day investigations
to determine whether she should recommend appointment of independent
counsels to look into the roles played by Vice President Al Gore
and former Clinton deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes in the 1996
Reno refused to turn over the documents subpoenaed
by Burton's committee on the ground that they would endanger the
Justice Department's campaign finance investigation by revealing
prosecutors' strategy. The committee approved the contempt citation
by a party-line vote last month.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking Democrat
on the Burton committee, called Wednesday's session a "very
constructive meeting" and added, "I don't think the
contempt resolution will pass the House."
There had been some doubt it would pass anyway,
as many Republicans did not want to be put in the position of
citing the attorney general. By appearing at the closed-door meeting,
Reno may have enabled some Republicans to get off the hook.
Also attending the meeting were Justice Department
officials who had made recommendations to Reno on appointing an
independent counsel -- LaBella; Lee Radek, head of the public
integrity section; and James DeSarno, an FBI official who worked
on the task force.
Much of the time was taken up with members
reading the memos. They asked LaBella, DeSarno and Radek questions,
but Reno interrupted them several times and said they shouldn't
answer, on grounds of confidentiality or the fact it was her decision,
not theirs, according to Burton.
Hyde called it a cordial meeting, and Burton
said it was productive--but not as productive as he would have
liked. "I don't believe everything we wanted was given to
us today," Burton said.
Burton, meantime, said a report that Vanity
Fair magazine was about to publish a story on his private life
is "another manifestation of trying to intimidate me or back
me off my job as chairman of the committee" by friends of
Vanity Fair officials said no Burton story
is planned for its next issue and said it was "ridiculous"
to suggest that it could be influenced by the White House.
Copyright 1998, The Tribune Company.