Attorney General Janet Reno is right for the wrong reason when she says she will not yield to Republican calls for a special prosecutor to look into allegations concerning Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown. Mr. Brown has been accused of accepting a $700,000 fee to help lift the trade embargo on Vietnam.
Ms. Reno said her reason for not appointing a special prosecutor was that there still would be an apparent conflict of interest if she, a co-member of the Clinton cabinet with Secretary Brown, selected the independent prosecutor.
But such prosecutors, even if selected by an attorney general under Justice Department regulations rather than by judges under the now expired independent counsel law, can in fact be given true independence -- the tampering with which would produce a public opinion disaster for an administration. That is, for instance, what happened in the case of the Watergate special prosecutors.
The right reason for the attorney general to ignore calls for a special prosecutor by a few Republicans (which is a bit of blatantly partisan and hypocritical politics, coming from members of Congress who sharply criticized the idea of special prosecutors during Republican administrations) is that there is no evidence whatsoever that the Justice Department is failing to investigate the allegations against Mr. Brown in a thorough and professional manner.
Career lawyers in the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section are working with the grand jury in Miami where the influence-peddling charge was first made. The U.S. attorney's office for southern Florida has its own public integrity unit, an elite group of mostly career prosecutors, and some of its members, too, are said to be working on the case.
Mr. Brown denies the allegations against him. Unless evidence to the contrary emerges from the grand jury probe, he deserves to be believed. Unless evidence to the contrary emerges, the probe, itself, and the highest officials at Justice, deserve to be believed when they say they are treating this case just as they would if Mr. Brown was not a member or friend of the administration.
If politics rears its head within the department, and investigative or prosecutorial decisions start being made in a non-professional way, you can bet leaking to the press will begin in Washington and Miami -- and then the public (and Congress) can legitimately call for an independent prosecutor.