WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno asked a federal court yesterday to appoint an independent counsel to investigate allegations that Labor Secretary Alexis Herman illegally accepted payments to use her influence for business interests while she served as a former White House aide.
Reno's application, if accepted by a three-judge panel as expected, would result in the appointment of the sixth special counsel to investigate members of the Clinton administration since it took office in January 1993.
To critics, Reno's decision in the Herman case illustrates what they charge are flaws in the post-Watergate statute that requires the naming of outside investigators on often flimsy evidence.
Reno told the court yesterday that after a five-month preliminary probe by career Justice Department prosecutors, with assistance from FBI agents, the investigators harbor doubts about the truthfulness of Herman's accuser, West African businessman Laurent Yene. She said the department's investigation "has developed no evidence clearly demonstrating Secretary Herman's involvement in these matters, and substantial evidence suggesting that she may not have been involved."
But Reno said she believed herself compelled to ask for an independent counsel because portions of Yene's account can be corroborated. As a result, "We thus are unable to conclude that he is not credible," she said.
Yene alleged that Herman entered into a corrupt agreement after selling her Washington consulting business to a close friend, Vanessa Weaver, and taking a presidential appointment as chief of the White House office of public liaison during Clinton's first term.
Yene, a Cameroon national who also obtained a major share of the company, told federal investigators that Herman had an agreement to receive 10 percent of any business she could facilitate for the company through her White House ties, according to Reno's statement. He also alleged that Herman directed Weaver to line up illegal campaign contributions for the Democratic Party from clients of the company, known as International Investments and Business Development, or IIBD.
Weaver attorney E. Lawrence Barcella has called Yene "an embittered former boyfriend" of Weaver's whose charges are fabricated.
Shortly after Reno's decision was announced, Herman professed her innocence in a brief appearance outside Labor Department headquarters, describing the charges against her as "false from the very beginning."
She said she was "extremely baffled" by Reno's action, speculating that the decision was based solely on the dictates of the special counsel's law rather than the merits of the charges against her.
President Clinton issued a statement calling Herman "a person of integrity" and said he considered it "unfortunate that despite no findings of wrongdoing," federal law requires an outside counsel in such circumstances.
The most prominent independent counsel probe of the administration, headed by Kenneth W. Starr, began as an investigation of the involvement by Clinton and his wife in an Arkansas land deal but now focuses on allegations including whether the president encouraged former White House intern Monica Lewinsky to lie under oath about whether they had a sexual relationship.
Two other independent counsels have looked into charges that former Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros lied to FBI agents and that former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy accepted gratuities from companies doing business with his department. Charged were filed against Cisneros and Espy; both have denied wrongdoing and are awaiting trial.
In March, an independent counsel was named to investigate whether Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt lied to the Senate about his role in rejecting an Indian casino in Wisconsin.
Another independent counsel resigned two years ago after his subject, Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, was killed in a plane crash in Croatia.
Pub Date: 5/12/98