Hatch asks Freeh to begin own probe 'Concurrent' inquiry on fund raising apart from Reno's is urged

December 08, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- In a blunt challenge to Attorney General Janet Reno, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee appealed yesterday to FBI Director Louis J. Freeh to launch his own investigation of Democratic fund-raising improprieties.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, said Freeh has authority to undertake a "concurrent" inquiry independent of the probe already being conducted under Reno's broad direction.

Freeh should do that, Hatch asserted, because the FBI director has differed with Reno's decision not to seek an independent counsel to review fund-raising efforts by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Hatch's proposal appears designed to maintain pressure on Reno, who determined that phone calls made by Clinton and Gore to prospective donors did not violate a 114-year-old law against soliciting campaign funds on federal property.

Although her decision settled one aspect of the fund-raising flap, a Justice Department task force continues to investigate campaign finance irregularities and could yet prompt a decision to seek a special counsel.

The FBI declined to comment on Hatch's proposal. Moreover, it appeared unlikely that Freeh, who has called the policy dispute between himself and Reno an honest difference of opinion, would proceed with such a probe. If he did, it would be only the third time the 1954 statute authorizing a concurrent investigation would have been used.

Reno, interviewed yesterday on CBS' "Face the Nation," said a Justice Department team of more than 120 attorneys, FBI agents and support personnel continues to conduct a "larger investigation" of alleged infractions of fund-raising and election laws.

Reno warned that no one should consider the Clinton administration cleared of wrongdoing.

"If the [independent counsel] statute is triggered at any point during that investigation, I will be the first one to trigger it," she said.

In calling for Freeh to conduct a probe, Hatch, appearing on the same program, cited Reno's "incomplete and/or inaccurate responses" to lawmakers' questions, her "creative interpretation of existing statutes" and the Justice Department's "attempt to hamstring investigators."

The usually reserved Utah lawmaker called Reno "a fine person" and said he did not doubt her integrity. "But," he said, "I do question her judgment.

"I have a lot more confidence in Director Freeh in this matter than I do in the attorney general," Hatch said.

Other Republicans were less reserved in their criticism of Reno after her decision Tuesday not to seek appointment of an independent counsel to look into fund-raising phone calls by Clinton and Gore.

"She's protecting the president, in my opinion," said Rep. Dan fTC Burton, an Indiana Republican who chairs the House panel investigating campaign fund raising.

"There is an apparent conflict of interest," Burton said on "Fox News Sunday." "She's trying to investigate her boss. And she will not appoint an independent counsel. What conclusion can you come to, other than she's trying to protect her boss?"

Burton's panel is expected to hear testimony tomorrow from Reno and Freeh. The panel has subpoenaed a widely publicized memo in which Freeh sought unsuccessfully to persuade Reno to seek appointment of a special investigator.

The committee's insistence on inspecting the Freeh memo has prompted a political and legal tug of war between lawmakers and Reno. The attorney general said in her televised interview that releasing the memo could compromise her department's probe and "alert people who may be subjects of the

investigation as to what to expect."

But Burton insisted that the House committee would be prepared to review a version of the memo from which any investigative leads would be expunged.

Burton, who has come under investigation himself for alleged fund-raising improprieties, said the next step would be for the committee to issue a contempt of Congress citation against Reno for her refusal to share the memo.

But he acknowledged that Reno could prove a formidable roadblock to such a move. Congress would have to rely on the Justice Department to bring such a case before a court and also, potentially, to enforce the contempt citation. At every turn, he suggested, Reno could resist.

Reno, meanwhile, offered high praise for Freeh, and it did not appear likely that tomorrow's hearing would yield the kind of rift between the two officials that some Republicans have hoped would occur.

"He is a great law enforcement official. He and I have been through some very difficult cases together," said Reno. "I admire him."

It was also unclear, according to legal experts, that the 1954 statute cited by Hatch actually allows the sort of parallel effort Hatch appears to want.

John F. Banzhaff III, a law professor at George Washington University, said the law appears to provide for other agencies of the federal government to seek investigations by the FBI and Justice Department, which would work together to satisfy the request.

Banzhaff said neither the language of the law nor the two previous instances in which it has been used suggests that the statute casts the FBI and Justice Department as investigative agencies independent of each other.

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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