Scope of Reno's initial inquiries is one issue raised by her decision Were things overlooked by narrowly cast probes?

December 03, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno's announcement yesterday stirred up two issues over her use of the independent counsel law:

* Did she cast her initial investigations of the president, vice president and former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary too narrowly to focus on telephone calls, keeping out of the hands of an independent counsel a range of other accusations about misconduct during the Clinton-Gore 1996 campaign?

* Did Reno properly refuse to use her option to ask for an independent counsel investigation of anyone else whose prosecution by the Justice Department might be a conflict of interest?

The law comes into play when the Justice Department is told that a crime may have been committed by someone covered by the law: a top government or campaign official or someone whom the Justice Department could not prosecute because of conflict of interest.

The attorney general is not to ask for a special prosecutor unless the department first completes a "preliminary investigation" that suggests further investigation. A preliminary inquiry is triggered, the law says, once the department has specific information from a credible source about a crime.

The law has two provisions, depending upon who is the target:

* If it is the president, vice president or some other top official, the attorney general must make a preliminary investigation.

* If it is someone else whom the Justice Department itself could not prosecute because of a conflict of interest, the attorney general has the option -- but not the duty -- to begin a preliminary inquiry.

The attorney general must ask for such a counsel if the preliminary inquiry points to a need for further investigation. Otherwise, the attorney general shuts it down.

Legally, it appears, no one can force the attorney general to issue the findings that would lead to an independent counsel.

Pub Date: 12/03/97

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