Reno forces out No. 2 official at Justice Dept.

January 28, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau Staff writers Carl M. Cannon and Susan Baer contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno moved yesterday to end a months-long leadership feud she has been having at the Justice Department by easing out the No. 2 official, Deputy Attorney General Philip B. Heymann.

Leaving little doubt that his surprise departure was Ms. Reno's doing, Mr. Heymann told President Clinton in a resignation letter that the "attorney general has concluded that our operational and management styles are too different for us to function fully effectively as a management team. . . ."

To reporters, Mr. Heymann remarked: "The chemistry wasn't right."

Ms. Reno agreed and tried to head off any speculation that something dark or hidden had occurred, saying: "It's pretty much just what you see."

The disagreement cost the agency one of its most experienced experts on criminal law and law enforcement just at a time when the crime issue is moving rapidly to prominence as a politically volatile policy question.

Mr. Heymann developed his reputation in past tours of duty at the department and as a Harvard law professor. With no significant political sponsor in the administration, he was chosen last April mainly for his expertise.

Because of the special importance of the crime issue, there was immediate speculation that the deputy's job might now be filled by promoting the assistant attorney general in charge of the department's Criminal Division, Jo Ann Harris.

The shake-up at the top left unclear what role has been and will be played by the department's No. 3 official, Associate Attorney General Webster L. Hubbell, a long-time Arkansas friend and confidant of the Clintons. He was once a law partner to Hillary Rodham Clinton -- a relationship that figures in the current special prosecutor's investigation of the Clintons' ties to the Whitewater land deal in Arkansas and to a failed savings and loan.

The Justice Department has been plagued for years by management problems and low morale, and Mr. Clinton and his aides were determined when they came into office to put an end to those. Yesterday's developments indicated that that goal had not been reached yet -- particularly in the wake of repeated setbacks in trying to fill the department's highest positions.

At a time when Ms. Reno's relations with key White House aides have been strained because of a number of policy disputes and negative news "leaks" from there about her leadership, the public airing of the personal conflict among department leaders threatened to cause new tension and to raise the prospect of an even more active White House intervention into department affairs.

The White House press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, insisted yesterday that the Heymann matter was handled entirely by the Justice Department's two leaders.

Ms. Reno bristles at any suggestion that aides to the president have any direct hand in the department's business, but she has been embarrassed publicly by at least a half-dozen White House gestures that her supporters considered to be slights or interfering mandates.

The attorney general has been a direct target of complaints about the way the department is being run. According to aides on Capitol Hill, higher-level department officials have been telling their contacts in Congress stories about her style as the agency's boss -- tales of the kind of friction with her colleagues that had arisen from time to time in the past when she was the chief criminal prosecutor in Dade County, Fla.

A variety of sources, inside and outside the department, said that the department's two leaders have engaged in repeated policy disputes, as well as personal wrangles, and both have drawn private criticism -- especially from within Congress -- for a supposed lack of political sophistication on hot public issues, such as crime.

Mr. Heymann was involved in a central way in the Justice Department's selection this month of a former New York prosecutor, Robert B. Fiske Jr., to investigate the Clintons' role in the Whitewater affair. Mr. Heymann apparently has caused some resentment elsewhere in the administration for the department leaders' decision to let Mr. Fiske write for himself an open-ended mandate for that probe.

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