WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno is obviously splitting hairs in justifying her refusal to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the curious fund-raising practices of the Democratic National Committee.
It may be true, as Ms. Reno asserted, that there is no hard evidence that President Clinton or Vice President Al Gore "may have violated federal criminal law." But the case also involves former high-ranking officials of the Commerce Department and at least one member of the White House staff. And it inevitably involves those conversations Mr. Clinton had in the White House with an Indonesian donor.
More to the point, the refusal to name an independent counsel is a political gaffe because it invites Americans to infer, first, that there is something being covered up and, second, that Ms. Reno herself is trying to protect her job for the second term. The latter is true even if, as is certainly the case, Ms. Reno has built a well-deserved reputation during the first term as an independent attorney general by, among other things, appointing four other special prosecutors in cases involving administration officials.
There are valid complaints that can be made about the special prosecutor law. In some cases, they have been appointed when it would appear that the Justice Department could have carried out the inquiry without being accused of whitewash. That is obviously the case in the investigation into whether officials of the Bush administration misused State Department files in the 1992 Bush-Clinton presidential campaign.
It also seems that some of the inquiries end up making heavy lifting out of what would appear to be straightforward questions. Has month after month of work by a battery of lawyers been necessary, for example, to find out whether Secretary of Housing Henry Cisneros gave incorrect information when he was being vetted about the amounts of money he had paid to his onetime mistress? How complicated can that be?
But the questions raised by the DNC's fund-raising practices are far more complex and significant, as evidenced simply by the fact the party already has been obliged to return more than $1.5 million in contributions.
A quid pro quo?
The critical question in this case, moreover, goes directly to the Oval Office: Did President Clinton and his underlings make policy decisions that financially benefited the contributors?
Two factors assure a full-court press for answers. One is the fact that the White House has treated the matter so clumsily. Before the election we are told the conversations involving the president and the contributor were purely social. After the election, we are told maybe they talked a little policy after all. How does that smell?
The second factor is, of course, the continued Republican control of Congress and its investigative authority. Sen. John McCain, the highly respected Arizona Republican who asked Ms. Reno to act, now says her refusal means "more emphasis" on congressional hearings. That may be a little disingenuous -- those hearings were a certainty anyway -- but the threat is clear.
The DNC response so far has been puny. Party officials are raising their own questions about whether the Republican National Committee also may been raising some money abroad that wouldn't stand up to close scrutiny and might have to be returned. And that may very well be the case. It would be a miracle, given the permissiveness of the whole "soft money" system, if there were not some contributions subject to challenge.
But concerning ourselves with the Republican record misses the point. The Democrats are the ones with their president in the White House in a position to provide some quo for the quid of money from Indonesia or wherever.
It is always possible, obviously, that huge contributions may have influenced congressional actions. But the Democrats already have been nailed taking money they shouldn't have taken. And an independent counsel is needed to find out what, if anything, that money bought.
Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 12/04/96