A U.S. attorney's balancing act


Until last week, U.S. Attorney Dick Bennett had an awkward little problem.

On the one hand, he's running a grand jury investigation of

procurement practices involving Lottery Agency equipment.

On the other hand, he's trying to keep his political prospects bright -- yet carefully within limits prescribed by law, the Hatch Act to be precise.

As a federal government employee, he can't be a candidate. And he isn't, officially.

At times, the distinction can be difficult to maintain.

He's out there on the political speaking circuit, preparing to run for attorney general of Maryland in 1994. He just doesn't ever say so directly.

He says he has cleared his activities with the Justice Department ethics office in Washington. On the street and in Annapolis, his high-wire act is widely commented on, not always favorably.

Some would not be crushed if his grand jury probe looked political -- calculated to win headlines useful in a race for public office. Potential opponents would like that. So would potential targets of the inquiry.

If indicted, the latter could argue they were victims of crass political manipulation.

Bruce C. Bereano, the lobbyist whose client won the lottery contracts Mr. Bennett is investigating, has been working through political contacts to get the Republican incumbent ousted.

And last week, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno -- presumably acting independently of Mr. Bereano -- asked all U.S. attorneys to resign forthwith. Until then, Mr. Bennett had thought he might be in office until August.

Ms. Reno has said she might name interim appointees to serve until permanent replacements are on board.

Without his title, Mr. Bennett will lose authority and a bit of the credit if convictions result from the investigation. But a certain clarity will return to his life.

Not that he has been vague about his intentions.

"It would be phony to renounce any thought of 1994," he said before Ms. Reno's action.

But everything, he observes, is subject to change.

Ms. Reno's abrupt call for his resignation shows how true that is.

Very undecided but please send money

Will she or won't she? Run for governor, that is.

Helen Delich Bentley, that is.

She might, but probably not.

The 2nd District Republican congresswoman has been vague. She has given a different deadline for a decision to almost everyone who asks. She'll decide by April 1 or April 15 or May 1 or . . .

One of those in the GOP who thinks she might do it says she is motivated by the loss of her rather unique status as Third U.S. Senator from Maryland. The state's actual senators were Democrats after 1986 -- and she was the ranking Republican House member with a Republican president.

All that turned to ashes last November when Bill Clinton sent George Bush back to Houston.

Now a poll by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research of Columbia labels her most likely to succeed in a race for her party's gubernatorial nomination. Also, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is thought to be favorably disposed toward her. He's a Democrat, but he did endorse George Bush and he has always been close to Mrs. Bentley politically. Also, if he runs for mayor of Baltimore again he might rather deal with Mrs. Bentley as governor than with potential Democratic successors with whom he has bickered.

Last week some of Mrs. Bentley's Republican supporters got a fund-raising letter.

"The 1994 contest has the potential to be the most difficult contest we have taken on together. . . . Your contribution will help us be prepared for the challenge when it comes. . . . I am looking forward once again to welcoming you as an important part of the Bentley Re-Elect winning team."

Bentley Re-elect? Does that mean she's running again for the Congress? Probably.

But it's hard to tell from the letter, which never says what race the requested contribution would be used for.

Absolutely, positively in the 1994 contest

Pat Smith is running for attorney general on the Democratic side. Mr. Smith is a 45-year-old Rockville lawyer who managed the successful Maryland presidential primary campaign of former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas.

Mr. Smith has alerted members of the Maryland Democratic Party hierarchy of his intentions, and he's begun to make the rounds of central committee meetings.

He even ran into Dick Bennett last week at Overlea Hall in Baltimore County.

Dems were meeting on one side of the place, Republicans on the other.

Mr. Smith told Mr. Bennett he was in.

Mr. Bennett was noncommittal.

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