WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno, who has turned down three requests to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Democratic fund-raising practices, said yesterday that her own prosecutors will pursue the case with "any tools they need."
Reno told reporters at her weekly news briefing that a task force of three career attorneys in the Justice Department's public integrity section already is investigating possible criminal wrongdoing in the way Democratic National Committee officials obtained money from contributors with foreign interests.
Other Justice Department sources said the campaign finance team would have access to a federal grand jury to issue subpoenas and obtain testimony and could call upon FBI agents conduct interviews.
But House Republicans said they are pressing ahead with their own inquiry to avoid relying on a Justice Department investigation that is likely to remain confidential for months to come.
Two requests from House and Senate Republicans for an independent counsel were rejected by Reno, as well as a request from the citizen interest group Common Cause.
Reno said none of the alleged wrongdoers is of sufficiently high rank to meet requirements of the Independent Counsel Act.
As a first step in the House inquiry, lawyers for the Democratic Party and a House subcommittee have set a Dec. 20 "target date" for the Democratic committee to begin supplying Congress with documents pertaining to some of the activities of key DNC fund-raiser John Huang, who solicited most of the questionable donations.
Depending upon the quality of evidence obtained by congressional investigators, nationally televised House hearings could begin early next year, according to sources familiar with the inquiry.
Reno sought to assure congressional Republicans that the department's own inquiry would be thorough. Speaking of her prosecutors, she said: "I've directed that they pursue every lead, that they follow those leads where the evidence and the law takes them."
Declaring that her lawyers have "full powers," Reno said "any tools they need to do the job that are available to them under the law, I want them to use."
Based on disclosures and questions raised by the media, the Democratic Party so far has returned about $1.5 million in political contributions it judged to be of uncertain, if not illegal, origin.
By federal law, donations to a U.S. presidential campaign or for any federal election are permitted only from U.S. citizens or from foreigners who are legal residents here.
Of particular concern have been $450,000 in contributions from an Indonesian couple and $250,000 from a South Korean company, both of which the DNC returned in response to news articles.
Questions also have been raised about a Buddhist temple in Southern California that was used for a fund-raising event attended by Vice President Al Gore.
Huang, a central figure in the inquiries, formerly was a high-ranking Los Angeles-based executive of the Lippo Group who accepted an appointment in the Commerce Department in 1994.
Several months ago, he left the government to become a principal Democratic fund-raiser.
The congressional request for DNC documents relating to Huang originated from the civil service subcommittee of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, the same panel that held hearings into Whitewater-related cases such as the 1993 firing of White House travel office employees and the 1996 controversy involving FBI background files furnished to the White House.
Although Congress routinely seeks records from federal officials, the panel's request for DNC documents is believed to be unprecedented.
Congressional investigators normally do not delve into the workings of political parties.
Pub Date: 12/06/96