Reno's reluctance puzzling

August 12, 1998|By Linda Chavez

LAST WEEK, the House committee investigating illegal campaign contributions voted along party lines to cite Attorney General Janet Reno for contempt of Congress.

The action was prompted by her refusal to turn over subpoenaed documents from the Justice Department's own chief investigator Charles LaBella, who recommended that she appoint an independent counsel to investigate administration and Democratic Party officials for possible criminal violations of campaign-finance laws. So who's playing politics, congressional Republicans or the attorney general and her Democratic defenders on the committee?

To date, Ms. Reno has proven herself impervious to criticism, common-sense and the collective advice of her top investigators. In defending her most recent action, she claimed: "The department cannot do its duty if it is subjected to a process that can only shake public confidence in our ability to make law-enforcement decisions free of political pressure. And it cannot perform the way it should if required to submit internal memoranda to political scrutiny in a manner that can only squelch candid, honest, open advice."

But there is little evidence Ms. Reno is paying much attention to that advice in the first place. Last November, FBI director Louis Freeh recommended that she appoint an independent counsel to investigate illegal Democratic campaign contributions and she ignored him. Now she's ignoring Mr. LaBella, too.

More than three weeks after he presented her with a 94-page memo outlining why she should appoint an independent counsel, he told the committee she hadn't bothered to talk to him about his recommendations. She may not even have read the memo and the accompanying foot-high stack of supporting documents, according to her own admissions. Her first line of defense when presented with a subpoena for the documents was that she had not yet had time to evaluate the documents herself.

Nonetheless, maybe the Republicans went too far in citing Ms. Reno for contempt of Congress. After all, such action is unprecedented, right? That's the impression from much of the media coverage last week. It turns out, however, that at least three previous Cabinet-level officials were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over secret documents -- every one a Republican cited by a Democratic-controlled committee: former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration and former Secretary of the Interior James Watt and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Ann Goresuch, both Reagan appointees.

If there was any partisanship in the Republicans' decision to cite Ms. Reno for contempt, they certainly had plenty of examples to follow from when their Democratic colleagues were in power.

And what about Democratic complaints that the entire investigation into illegal campaign contributions has been partisan from the beginning? They're certainly correct that there has been an unparalleled level of partisanship on both the House and Senate committees investigating this issue, but that's because so few Democrats have broken party ranks from defending their president and their national party.

During Watergate, Republicans slowly began to desert Richard Nixon as evidence mounted that he was involved in wrongdoing. Similarly, Republicans like former Sen. Warren Rudman were quick to criticize Ronald Reagan during the Iran-contra investigations -- but Democrats have largely stood steadfast in defending President Clinton, no matter how compelling the evidence against him or other administration officials.

Congressional Democrats' see-no-evil, hear-no-evil policy may come back to haunt them later, however. The contents of Mr. LaBella's memo to the attorney general won't remain secret forever. Too many people know what's in the memo to maintain a successful conspiracy of silence for long. Someone has already broken the silence by tipping off the press to the memo's existence. How long will it be before concrete information begins to dribble out?

When it does, Janet Reno's reluctance to appoint an independent counsel and congressional Democrats' unwillingness to expose their own party's illegal campaign activities may look more like a criminal cover-up than mere partisan politics as usual.

Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/12/98

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