House GOP grills Reno amid sharp criticism of fund-raising probe She 'wants to reach consensus' with Freeh

October 16, 1997|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Facing a blizzard of criticism from House Republicans, Attorney General Janet Reno fought back yesterday with a vigorous defense of her investigation of Clinton campaign fund raising, saying she would pay "no attention whatsoever" to politics or pressure and would call for an independent counsel only if the evidence warranted it.

In a seven-hour grilling by the House Judiciary Committee, Reno appeared unflappable, never wavering or yielding an inch to her critics as they challenged her credibility and competence.

The committee chairman, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, charged that Reno's investigation "bristles with conflicts of interest" because she is a presidential appointee who must decide whether the president should be investigated by an independent counsel. Hyde said Reno's failure to seek an outside prosecutor has "damaged public confidence" in the Justice Department.

In an effort to defuse some of the criticism directed at her, Reno did say that no aspect of the investigation would be closed unless the FBI director, Louis J. Freeh, had also given his approval. Freeh has criticized the activities of the Clinton White House and has reportedly favored the appointment of an independent counsel.

Although Reno appeared to be granting the FBI director an unusual degree of authority over the investigation, Republicans on the committee did not seem appeased by the move.

Bert Brandenburg, a Justice Department spokesman, said in an interview later that Reno "wants to reach consensus" with Freeh because she respects his judgment. Still, Brandenburg added, the attorney general remains "the final authority."

For months, Republicans have been pressing Reno to call for the appointment of an independent counsel to examine numerous allegations, including that the White House granted favors and even altered policies in exchange for campaign contributions.

On Tuesday, Reno extended for 60 more days the Justice Department's inquiry into whether an independent counsel should examine Clinton's fund-raising phone calls from the White House, as she recently did regarding calls made by Vice President Al Gore.

But two weeks ago, Reno sent a letter to Hyde saying that, after an 11-month investigation, her department had found no specific evidence of wrongdoing by top officials related to an array of other fund-raising activities, such as the White House coffees and overnights for donors and the solicitation of foreign money.

Yesterday, Reno told lawmakers that her Oct. 3 letter was merely a "snapshot" of where the investigation stood at the time. Her staff, Reno said, continues to examine the whole spectrum of possible misdeeds, from the White House coffees to obstruction of justice.

"No door has been closed," she said several times.

The hearing was not quite as combative as had been expected, and there were no calls for Reno's impeachment or resignation ** as there had been last week by a few Senate Republicans.

Disarming some of her opponents with her trademark stone-faced bluntness and a dash of humor, Reno said the accusations that her investigation is being influenced by her loyalty to the president and her interest in keeping her job "could not be further from the truth."

"If I don't have this job, I go back to Miami," the former Florida state prosecutor said. "And now that we have a World Series team, that has some merit, too."

But Reno was grilled about some of the lapses of her staff that recently led her to replace her chief investigator. On several occasions, for instance, the news media have uncovered facts that the Justice Department's 120-person task force of lawyers and investigators has missed.

"Can you tell us why the American people should believe you when you say you're going to pursue every lead?" asked Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican.

Reno declined to discuss specifics about the department's inquiry. But she acknowledged that there were "tensions early on" about the direction of the investigation. Reno said her task force also ran into trouble at one point with a backlog of subpoenaed documents it had not analyzed by the time news media accounts of their contents appeared.

But she cautioned the committee yesterday against "second guessing" her task force.

"I go to bed at night," she said, "thinking: 'What have I missed? What have I done wrong?' I wake up in the morning thinking about the same thing. But so far, I've still gotten a good night's sleep, because I know I'm trying -- if I'm making mistakes, I am still trying to do what's right."

Asked about reports that her prosecutors had barred FBI agents from interviewing senior administration officials, Reno acknowledged that FBI agents might have been told that "it's better to build from the ground up and interview them down the road than interview them now."

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