Handling of tapes irks Reno White House delay in revealing film of coffees causes rift; 'I was very disturbed'; Attorney general also answers critics; vows she won't be rushed

WASHINGTON -- In her first public criticism of the White House in the campaign fund-raising affair, Attorney General Janet Reno expressed anger yesterday at the delay by presidential aides in turning over videotapes of President Clinton's coffees with major donors.

"I was mad," Reno said. "I was very disturbed that the tapes had not been produced in a current fashion and that it had taken so long after the production of the tapes to let us know."


But Reno seemed more troubled yesterday by the drumbeat of Republican criticism and by insinuations of commentators ZTC across the political spectrum that she is not independent of the White House and should step aside in favor of a special prosecutor.

"I don't seek to create headlines or deal in innuendo or mere speculation," Reno said in a spirited defense of the Justice Department team that is investigating fund-raising abuses. "I want to make decisions and build cases that stand the test of time and court review, and no pressure or harsh words or editorials will change my focus."


The attorney general's remarks were made at her weekly news conference as hearings on Capitol Hill delved into allegations of a 1996 Democratic Party fund-raising conspiracy with the Teamsters union. At the same time, Republican senators threatened to hold hearings into Reno's investigation.

"There have been claims that we have somehow tied investigators' hands, or chosen not to pursue all available leads or spared high-level figures by not triggering the provisions of the independent counsel statute," Reno said. "These claims are not true."

Last Friday, Reno sent a letter to Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee explicitly exonerating Clinton of wrongdoing in the holding of fund-raising coffees in the White House Map Room. In it, she rejected the contention of Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, that in holding the coffees, Clinton may have violated federal bribery laws as well as a law against raising political money on federal property.

In her view, Reno said in her letter, the strictures on the use of federal property do not apply to the portion of the White House used as Clinton's private residence (where the Map Room is). Secondly, she said, there is no evidence that Clinton directly solicited money there anyway. Finally, she added, the Republicans had produced nothing to show that Clinton solicited or accepted contributions in return for favors.

Unknown to Reno when she issued that conclusion Friday, the White House was sitting on long-subpoenaed videotapes of those coffees. White House lawyers found the tapes on Wednesday, but they did not inform the Justice Department until Saturday.

One of the tapes shows the donors being ushered into the Oval Office. On another, a contributor is overheard trying to offer the -- Democratic national chairman, Don Fowler, some checks. He refuses to accept them in the White House but assures the giver that he will receive them later.

Republicans have made much of these snippets. But Reno reiterated yesterday that nothing she has seen on the tapes has altered her conclusion so far: Clinton broke no laws. Rather, she indicated, she was disturbed as a matter of principle, that the White House had taken months to produce the subpoenaed tapes -- and three days to notify her even after they became available.

"Where the White House has a responsibility to produce documents, it's very, very frustrating when they are produced in a delayed fashion," Reno said. "And I also thought we should have been told immediately."


Asked to respond, the White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, said: "It's easy to understand and easy to agree with."

Meanwhile yesterday, the Senate committee investigating campaign fund-raising abuses examined an alleged illegal "contribution swap," now under investigation by federal prosecutors, between the Democratic National Committee and the Teamsters union.

Richard L. Sullivan, a former DNC finance director who was the panel's first witness last summer, returned to face questions about his knowledge of the alleged scheme. Sullivan denied knowing of any arrangement by which the DNC would direct a donor to contribute $100,000 to the re-election campaign of Ron Carey as Teamsters president. In exchange, the Teamsters would contribute to state Democratic parties.

Already, three individuals, including Martin Davis, a consultant for Carey, have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges related to the contribution swap.

Sullivan acknowledged that Davis told him he was helping to raise money for the DNC from labor unions and also asked for help in raising money for Carey. Sullivan testified that the Clinton-Gore finance director, Laura Hartigan, encouraged him to talk with Davis and, in fact, arranged a lunch for the three of them.

At the lunch, Sullivan said, Davis "mentioned that if we were to help him raise money for Carey it would help him in his effort to raise money from unions" for the Democratic Party.


Although Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, observed that such an arrangement appeared to be "a direct quid pro quo or swap," Sullivan said he did not see it that way.

"At no time did either Martin or Laura suggest that Davis' help in the labor community was conditioned upon or was a quid pro quo for the DNC's assistance in raising money for Carey's election," Sullivan said.

A former DNC official, Mark F. Thomann, testified earlier yesterday that Sullivan urged him to consider directing a $100,000 contribution from a Phillipine businesswoman, Judith Vazquez, to the Carey campaign. Vazquez had pledged to contribute to the DNC but was ineligible.

The testimony seemed at odds with Sullivan's deposition of last month in which he said: "I don't believe I did anything specific to raise money for Ron Carey."

Grilled about the apparent contradiction by Specter, Sullivan acknowledged calling Thomann about the Vazquez contribution. But Sullivan said he merely asked Thomann if such a contribution by Vazquez to the Carey campaign would be legal and appropriate.

Pub Date: 10/10/97