POLITICS AND PROSECUTION
August 4, 1998
Attorney General Janet Reno's refusal, thus far, to appoint an independent counsel to investigate alleged campaign fundraising abuses by the Clinton administration has led many Congressional Republicans to question her objectivity and effectiveness. Following a background report, Margaret Warner and guests discuss the attorney general's job performance. Also, participate in an Online Forum on the topic.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
A RealAudio version of today's hearing is available.
August 4, 1998
A background report on Attorney General Reno's performance.
Is Attorney General Reno following the law or practicing partisan politics?
December 9, 1997
Should an independent counsel investigate the President's campaign fund-raising activities? Reno and Freeh disagree.
December 2, 1997
Janet Reno will not to seek an independent counsel to investigate the President.
April 30, 1997
Janet Reno resists pressure to appoint an independent counsel to investigate alleged campaign finance abuses.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of law and White House.
The Department of Justice.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, two perspectives on the face-off between the attorney general and Republicans and Congress from two former Justice Department officials: Walter Dellinger served as acting solicitor general under Janet Reno in 1996 and '97. He now teaches law at Duke University. And Michael Carvin was deputy assistant attorney general in the office of legal counsel during the Reagan administration. He's now in private practice in Washington. Mike Carvin, does the attorney general deserve the pounding she's taking from Republicans in Congress over this larger question of whether to name an independent counsel?
Mr. Carvin: "How an attorney general can ignore that kind of wrongdoing is fairly astonishing."
MICHAEL CARVIN, Former Reagan Justice Official: She's-this is a classic case where the statute should be applied and an independent counsel should be appointed. You've got the three top people-two at the FBI, one at the Justice Department-saying there's credible allegations of political corruption at the highest levels of the White House. How an attorney general can ignore that kind of wrongdoing is fairly astonishing. This is at least a conflict of interest, an inherent conflict of interest, where she's investigating the people who appointed her and who are her bosses.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Dellinger, do you think she's sort of asked for this, for all this pressure from Congress over this issue of naming an independent counsel?
WALTER DELLINGER, Former Clinton Justice Official: I don't think she's asked for it, Margaret, but I don't think she walks away from it at all. I do not know whether Janet Reno has made the right decision so far, but I do know this. I know that she has made the decision that she believes is the right one as a matter of law. And she also understands that it's her decision, not the investigators, not the director of the federal bureau for whom she has a great deal of respect, this is her decision, because it's a question of law. And I think she is-even though it would make her life much easier, and she would be much more popular with every member of Congress and editorial page writers if she would once again hand this over to an independent counsel, she does not believe at this point that the statutory standard has been met.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Carvin, now Louis Freeh said the same thing, which is in the end this is her decision and that's the way the statute's written. It is written that way, isn't it?
MICHAEL CARVIN: It is her decision, but she has to exercise her discretion correctly. You have-it's undisputed that there was blatantly illegal contributions going to the DNC from people who had close ties, both to the President Clinton and to hostile foreign governments. You have credible allegations that people like Mr. Ickes at the White House knew all about that, that top people in the Clinton campaign knew all about that. I'm not saying those allegations are true. But this is a classic case where the Justice Department can't objectively investigate that sort of thing, and if the public is going to have any confidence in the result of this investigation, it needs to go to somebody outside the department.
Mr. Dellinger: "Anybody that I think knows Janet Reno or works with her knows that she is not going to be bullied...."
WALTER DELLINGER: I think if I could respond briefly to those well considered points, you have to keep in mind that the Department of Justice has through administrations under both parties successfully investigated campaign corruption. In the 1970's, the department investigated South Korean contributions--in the 1990's contributions from the government of India. This is the Department of Justice under Janet Reno that investigated Chairman Rostenkowski, who was the President's most important political ally, on his most important domestic initiative, health care reform, and under Janet Reno the Department of Justice investigated, indicted, prosecuted, tried, convicted--Chairman Rostenkowski's been to prison and served his sentence-when some of the independent counsels have still failed to report. If-every attorney general and every case involving campaign finance is either going to be in the same party or the opposite party from people being investigated, so there's always in that sense the appearance of a conflict, but there is no indication that Congress intended to expand the statute so drastically that it would simply eliminate the role of the Department of Justice and historically investigating and prosecuting both governmental corruption and campaign finance. That being said, anybody that I think knows Janet Reno or works with her knows that she is not going to be bullied or pressured by anybody one way or the other, and I would not be surprised any day if she found evidence which I haven't seen and I was not involved in when I was in the solicitor general's office with reviewing any of those matters, so I haven't seen any of this evidence, but if she believed that there was specific and credible evidence about a covered individual having committed a crime, she would within 24 hours seeking the appointment of an independent counsel from the special court. She doesn't believe that merely because this involves a political campaign that her department is unable to investigate it as the Department of Justice has through administrations investigated cases of campaign irregularities, campaign finance abuses, and governmental corruption.
MICHAEL CARVIN: I'm a strong proponent of the Justice Department being able to do this as well, but the independent counsel statute is the law, and the department has lost a lot of credibility in this investigation. Let's remember that the public integrity section was following behind the news media and Congress in exposing all of this wrongdoing. All of this came from the Thompson committee and the Burton committee and the Washington Post, plus, the person they shifted it to, Mr. La Bella, has now come to the firm conclusion that there was wrongdoing. At what point are we going to accept the good faith and the bona fides of these career prosecutors and shift it to somebody who's more objective and General Reno I think, quite understandably, as a human being, has just dug in her heels on this, and now she thinks it would be some sort of retroactive admission of guilt if she did now go to an independent counsel, and she's reluctant to do it, plus which she's never explained her position.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Dellinger, address that point about both Mr. Freeh and now Chuck La Bella, who headed the task force, coming to the conclusion that this recommendation for an independent counsel is a good idea. How much weight should that carry with her?
Mr. Dellinger: "Janet Reno makes her own decisions."
WALTER DELLINGER: Well, I believe that she would give that very serious weight. She has extremely high regard for both of these gentlemen, but Janet Reno makes her own decisions. She goes back to the office late at night. She reads the material herself. Their difference or disagreement is not about the facts that have been uncovered in the investigation. It's a disagreement about a matter of law, and it's the fact that this investigation involves activities that some senior officials are involved in sufficient to trigger this whole apparatus of the whole independent counsel statute when there is not yet evidence that a covered person or someone with whom she believes she has a political or financial or personal conflict has been implicated as a possible criminal, she doesn't believe that the fact that there's this atmosphere of politics disables her department and-
MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt you for a second just to ask, do you also on this latest twist about whether she should let the committee see the memos from La Bella and Freeh-do you also think she's doing the right thing there in refusing?
WALTER DELLINGER: Well, I do actually, and I'll be interested because I think Mr. Carvin will probably agree with me-throughout both the Reagan administration and the current administration and the Bush administration we have maintained very strongly that Congress should not get itself involved in prosecutorial decisions. In my early time in this administration we had a Democratic congressman who wanted to force the department to investigate certain corporations that he thought had committed environmental crimes, and I think those of us who've taken a look at that agree with our predecessors in other administrations that you really do need-Congress has a legitimate oversight role, but they should not get involved in the application of the law, and a congressional committee can come very close to obliterating one of the important parts of the separation of powers. And we have one body that writes the rules and another body that decides how to apply them. I think there would be significant compromise of legitimate law enforcement activities if internal prosecutors' memorandums were traded around on Capitol Hill.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me let Mr. Carvin-
WALTER DELLINGER: I was wondering if Mr. Carvin agrees with that.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you?
MICHAEL CARVIN: I agree certainly generally, but I will make the technical point that that only applies in the face of a congressional subpoena if you assert executive privilege, which for some reason the administration has decided not to do.
MARGARET WARNER: But on the larger question, do you agree with the attorney general and with Mr. Freeh and Mr. La Bella that it could actually compromise the investigation if these memos were given to the Hill?
Mr. Carvin: "Memorandums between prosecutors and the FBI and the attorney general should stay inside the Justice Department"
MICHAEL CARVIN: As I understand it, the Burton committee has agreed to redact all grand jury materials, so I think they would be sensitive to that. I think there might well be a compromise here, where if General Reno would come out and not rely on these bromides about applying the facts to the law and answer some specific questions about just taking the public information why she doesn't think that triggers the statute in some specific way, it may reduce the political pressure on her, but frankly, she's been stonewalling on these questions. And I think it's increased the frustration on Capitol Hill. But as a general matter, no. Memorandums between prosecutors and the FBI and the attorney general should stay inside the Justice Department, I agree.
WALTER DELLINGER: Well, now that, we agree.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Dellinger, do you think she needs to say-she has asked for three weeks to review the La Bella memo and then she's going to come to another determination-do you agree with Mr. Carvin that at that point she ought to say more publicly to answer whatever public concern there might be about her reasons?
WALTER DELLINGER: I think she ought to give her reasons as fully as she can, consistent with not compromising an ongoing investigation. And for all we know, the attorney general may well conclude at some point that there is sufficient particular evidence about particular crimes to trigger the statute. Ironically, when she does so, I think people will report that she caved into pressure. I don't think she'll cave into pressure either way. I also don't think that she's painted herself into a corner. She is perfectly capable of changing her mind or in light of additional evidence coming to a new conclusion, and she will do so if she thinks the facts warrant it.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Well, thanks Mr. Dellinger, Mr. Carvin. We have to leave it there.