TOPICS > Politics

A House Committee Votes to Hold Attorney General Reno in Contempt of Congress

August 6, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: True to his threat, Dan Burton, the Republican chairman of the House Government Reform & Oversight Committee, today proceeded with contempt of Congress action against Attorney General Janet Reno.

REP. DAN BURTON, Chairman, Government Reform Committee: I regret very much that we’ve had to come to this point.

KWAME HOLMAN: On Tuesday, Burton gave Reno until today to turn over to his committee two subpoenaed Justice Department memos that conflict with her decision thus far not to request an independent counsel to investigate allegations of fund-raising abuses in the 1996 presidential campaign.

REP. DAN BURTON: Our purpose has never been to hold the attorney general in contempt. Our purpose has been to get the information that the committee needs and to which it is entitled.

KWAME HOLMAN: The authors of the memos, FBI Director Louie Freeh and Charles LaBella, until recently head of the Justice Department’s investigation, confirmed at Tuesday’s hearing that they disagreed with Reno’s decision not to seek an independent counsel. But under questioning, both men supported Reno’s contention that releasing their memos could jeopardize pending criminal investigation.

CHARLES LA BELLA, Former Chief, Justice Department Task Force: I don’t think it should ever see the light of day, because this-in my judgment-would be devastating to the investigation that the men and women of the task force are working on right now, and that I put my blood, sweat, and tears into. And I don’t want to see that jeopardized.

KWAME HOLMAN: This morning at her weekly meeting with reporters, Attorney General Reno had little to say about the matter, other than that she was trying to work out some agreement with Chairman Burton.

JANET RENO, Attorney General: I feel that it’s very important that the two branches of government talk in the best of good faith, because I’m convinced that people who want to do their job-Congress in its oversight function-the executive and its prosecution function can reach an accommodation.

KWAME HOLMAN: But on Capitol Hill, Chairman Burton gave a detailed account of his conversation with the attorney general.

REP. DAN BURTON: In this situation we’re faced with today we have made no progress whatsoever. The attorney general has not budged an inch from the position she took last week. She wants to do a partial briefing for only two members of the committee, myself and Mr. Waxman, a month from now. She wants to deny any information whatsoever to the other 42 members of the committee, given the serious nature of what we’re looking into, and that’s unacceptable. This morning, she made another offer, which was also unacceptable, which I presented to our committee members, and that was that we would wait until we came back in September and in an open forum she would express some of the reasons why Mr. LaBella and Mr. Freeh said there should be an independent counsel. But in an open forum there’s no doubt in any of our minds that the guts of the reasons would not be able to be made available to us, therefore, that was a non-starter. We told the Justice Department that any secret grand jury material could be deleted. The subpoena specifically says that. The attorney general has refused to comply with the committee’s subpoena, and that’s why we’re here today.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Henry Waxman, the top Democrat on the committee, said it was Chairman Burton who was responsible for the impasse with Attorney General Reno.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN, (D) California: The chairman rejected that offer and has today said that she has not even tried to find a middle ground. Well, what offers have been made by the chairman to the attorney general? Give us that memo, or you’ll be held in contempt. I want to remind my colleagues that the penalty for contempt can be a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. Is that what we’ve come to? We threaten the attorney general with jail time if she doesn’t make the decision that the chairman wants? Now, there are some countries that do throw people in jail for exercising their independence. Powerful dictators punish disobedience with jail. But America has never been that way. Americans have never tolerated raw abuses of power, and I know that they won’t tolerate this committee’s attempt to intimidate Attorney General Reno.

KWAME HOLMAN: The action to hold the attorney general in contempt is by far the most serious step taken by a committee that has been plagued with partisanship since it began its investigation a year ago. Again today Republicans and Democrats were at opposite ends on the issue of forcing disclosure of the Justice Department memo.

REP. JOHN MICA, (R) Florida: If Ms. Reno does not comply, she has made a mockery of the law, a sham of the legal process, and destroyed both the spirit and intent of our system of checks and balances. To sum it up, I’ve never seen a more compelling situation that demands that we hold an executive officer of our government in contempt of a congressional request for information.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY, (D) New York: In attempting to hold Attorney General Reno in contempt, as usual, Mr. Chairman, you are way out of line and way over the top. We do not know what the attorney general’s decision will be in two weeks from now. She may well appoint another special investigator. She’s appointed seven. And if we go forward with this action, releasing these documents would hinder the investigation of the special prosecutor that you say you want.

KWAME HOLMAN: Indeed, this morning Reno said she leaves open the possibility of requesting an independent counsel.

JANET RENO: And if they want me to do the right thing, they certainly don’t want me to rush into a judgment after reviewing a memorandum; they want me to do it in the right way, and that’s what I’m going to do.

REP. DAN BURTON: The clerk will call the roll.

CLERK: Mr. Burton.


KWAME HOLMAN: But committee Republicans charge Reno simply is trying to delay taking any action until after the congressional elections in the fall. And when the vote came, the contempt citation carried on strict party lines, with all Republicans voting in favor, all Democrats voting against.

CLERK: Mr. Waxman.


CLERK: Mr. Waxman votes no.

KWAME HOLMAN: The vote moves action on the contempt citation to the full House. That will wait, however, until at least September, when Congress reconvenes after its August recess.