Reno's autonomy clearing path in fund-raising probe Clinton, GOP lack leverage

look at Gore is set to deepen today

October 03, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As the investigations into campaign finance plow ahead, President Clinton's legacy as well as Vice President Al Gore's future could rest in the hands of a proud, aloof attorney general with a reputation for integrity -- a woman hired by the president but who appears to be beyond his control.

But if Janet Reno was considered fiercely independent and a stickler on legal and ethical issues when she arrived in Washington, what she lacked was any experience in federal law or any personal relationship with Clinton.

Sometime in the coming days, Reno will decide whether to expand a Justice Department review to a 90-day inquiry to determine whether an independent counsel should investigate the president over his 1996 fund-raising activities. She reportedly has decided to take that step with regard to Gore and will announce it today.

Judging from the Justice Department's public statements, a special prosecutor would be authorized to investigate the narrow legal question of whether fund-raising phone calls from the Oval Office or the vice president's office violate federal law. But an independent inquiry could broaden into a wide-ranging investigation of the roles of Clinton and Gore in the aggressive money-raising operation run out of the White House over the past two years.

The president, his lawyers and his aides clearly dread such a possibility. Conversely, Republicans are clamoring for it.

In the middle is Reno, who must make the decision. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has called her "General Stonewall Reno." For their part, White House aides have questioned her loyalty to the president for having secured the appointments of so many previous independent counsels to investigate administration officials.

If this pressure has taken a toll, Reno is not showing it.

"Reno is not someone who can be buffaloed, badgered or bullied -- especially bullied -- into doing things she doesn't think are warranted under the law," said Carl Stern, a former Reno aide at the Justice Department.

Most Republican lawmakers agree and acknowledge privately that they have little real leverage with Reno. After Lott's "General Stonewall crack," in fact, Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee urged their colleagues to refrain from such personalized criticism for fear it would only stiffen her resolve.

The perception of Reno appears to be the same at the White TTC House, which has stopped leaking to reporters anonymous complaints that she is not a "team player." The president has also asserted repeatedly in recent months that he believes the attorney general should be free to make her decisions.

According to Leon E. Panetta, a top Clinton confidant, Reno's independent streak is one reason why Clinton hasn't simply picked up the phone and discouraged her from appointing a special counsel -- even though he would be free under the law to make such an appeal.

"To be truthful, a president would like to have a relationship with the attorney general that was of a nature where he could call her -- on anything -- and not have to worry about it coming out in the press," said Panetta, the White House chief of staff through most of Clinton's first term. "But that is not the case here."

He was referring to an instance in the first term in which a senior FBI official was summoned to the White House to hash out a statement suggesting that seven fired members of the White House travel office had been suspected of embezzlement.

Reno saw this act as a politicization of the bureau and as a misuse of government power. She demanded -- and received -- an apology from the White House counsel at the time, Bernard W. Nussbaum. Moreover, Reno also made sure that reporters knew about it.

Many conservatives have suggested that Clinton made Reno's reappointment to a second term conditional on her agreeing not to appoint a special prosecutor to probe the campaign finance scandal. "First of all, Clinton wouldn't do that," said Justice Department spokesman Bert Brandenberg. "And Reno would have quit if he had."

Brandenberg added that Reno "would hang up on" any White House official who called and sought to influence her.

"The more you are in the White House," Panetta said with a laugh, "the more you know why John F. Kennedy appointed his own brother as attorney general."

Qualifications fit

But Reno had other qualifications that prompted Clinton to bring her to Washington. She was not only a woman -- Clinton was determined to appoint the first female attorney general -- but was also a law enforcement official who had managed to prosecute all manner of hard cases without becoming hard-hearted.

In other words, she had the same passion for crime "prevention" measures -- such as diversion programs for first-time offenders and early-childhood intervention programs -- that are supported by many in the Clinton inner circle, notably Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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