Let Justice serve Reno's chance: AG has to prove department can handle campaign funding scandal.


ATTORNEY GENERAL Janet Reno, perhaps the most admired member of the Clinton Cabinet, has put her reputation on the line in refusing Republican requests for the appointment of an independent counsel to probe questionable fund-raising by the Democratic National Committee. She now has to demonstrate conclusively that professional prosecutors within the Department of Justice are quite capable of conducting a credible investigation.

President Clinton has not made her job any easier. By letting Ms. Reno twist in the wind after she indicated her desire to remain as AG during his second term, the president has created a situation in which the attorney general looks as though she is pandering for reappointment. This is grossly unfair to a public official whose career has been marked by integrity. It was she -- and she alone -- who dared to irritate the administration by ordering independent counsel investigations of Whitewater and White House mishandling of FBI files.

To compound the problem, Mr. Clinton now pretends he cannot stop his 1992 campaign manager, James Carville, from launching a well-financed attack on Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel appointed by federal judges to probe the ethical lapses of the whole Clinton entourage. In so doing, the president makes it clear his administration is intent on discrediting in advance any indictments the Starr investigation may produce. Washington is alive with speculation that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is a target.

While the latest fund-raising scandal is outside the subjects Mr. Starr has probed, it has its roots in Arkansas when then-Governor Clinton developed contacts with persons connected to the multi-billion dollar Indonesian banking group controlled by the Riady family. The family was the source of big contributions to the Clinton campaign plus lots of foreign policy advice to the president. The latest disclosure is a letter by Mochtar Riady, chief of the Lippo Group, urging Mr. Clinton to be accommodating to Vietnam, China and Indonesia.

Fortunately, Ms. Reno (if she remains in office) still could call for an independent counsel to probe the fund-raising scandal if she concludes this is warranted by new evidence.

Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress have an added incentive to conduct hearings that could lead to urgently needed reforms of a campaign funding system awash in torrents of special-interest money.

Pub Date: 12/05/96

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