Freeh memo urges Reno to seek special prosecutor Rejection expected today, leading to serious split LTC

December 02, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- FBI Director Louis J. Freeh has given a long memorandum to Attorney General Janet Reno in a last-ditch appeal to persuade her to seek an independent prosecutor to investigate campaign finance abuses, law enforcement officials said yesterday.

Reno is expected to reject his advice today, and that prospect has opened the most serious division between them in the more than four years that they have worked in unusually close harmony as the country's highest law enforcement officials.

Freeh's memo was described by those who have seen it as a forceful summary of the FBI's broad efforts in the case to date. They said the memo, which was not disclosed, put forth Freeh's contention that the conflicts of interest for the Justice Department are so great that Reno's department cannot credibly investigate the campaign finance issue.

Freeh's memo was given to Reno early last week, in time for her to take it with her on her trip to Mexico. But its existence became widely known among lawmakers only yesterday, on the eve of the deadline by which Reno must decide whether to seek an independent prosecutor to investigate fund-raising phone calls by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Angry reactions

The timing of leaks about the memo could not have been worse for the attorney general, as Justice Department and FBI officials traded accusations that each side has tried to gain the advantage against this deadline.

Justice Department officials reacted angrily to the memo's disclosure, with some accusing the FBI of abandoning Reno in a transparent effort to shore up the director's standing among Republicans in Congress.

GOP lawmakers have demanded that the attorney general step aside to let an independent prosecutor take over the case.

For their part, FBI officials have been complaining for days that Reno had reneged on a promise made to Republican House members in October -- made in an effort to buttress her credibility -- that she would grant Freeh veto rights before she shuts down any line of inquiry.

By day's end, officials at both agencies sought to play down the disagreement, attributing the conflict to lower-level subordinates who have engaged in what one official described as a "shooting war" that never involved Freeh or Reno.

Still, despite the conciliatory talk, the dispute threatened to end a period of cooperation in which Freeh and Reno have stood by each other through bad times and good.

Now, Freeh's position offers solid, politically neutral ground from which dissenting politicians, commentators and the public generally can question the attorney general's judgment on what has emerged as one of the most powerfully defining decisions of her tenure.

Although he has never said so publicly, Freeh has advised Reno privately for months that the appointment of an independent prosecutor is the only way to sort out the swirl of charges and accusations about the way money was raised for the 1996 elections.

"It is clear to me, reading between the lines, that he wants an independent counsel," said Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who sits on both the Judiciary Committee and the committee investigating campaign finance practices and who is one of the politicians closest to Freeh.

Unusual position

Two other Republican lawmakers, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified, said that in the past week, Freeh had explicitly told them that he strongly favored the appointment of an independent counsel and had taken issue with the attorney general over her resistance to that approach.

Some Justice Department officials had hoped that Freeh would remain silent about his opposition to Reno's expected decision. But the FBI director has an unusual position in the government. While his agency is part of the Justice Department and he reports to Reno, the director serves a fixed 10-year term and can only be removed from office by the president.

Pub Date: 12/02/97

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