WASHINGTON -- The House Judiciary Committee demanded yesterday that Attorney General Janet Reno release two memos that purportedly implicate President Clinton in illegal campaign fund raising, setting up a constitutional showdown just days before the committee is scheduled to vote on articles of impeachment.
Reno has already made it clear she will not release the memos, although in July she showed members of Congress edited versions of them. And Clinton has shown no willingness to push her.
"It is not within the president's ability to direct the attorney general to turn over this document," said Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman.
But Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who chairs the committee, insisted that his panel was "duty-bound" to expand the impeachment inquiry into an entirely new area of alleged wrongdoing.
Hyde said the committee was "not going on a wild-goose chase. We're going to take a look, and it's justified that we take a look."
Over unified Democratic opposition, committee Republicans approved subpoenas demanding memos drafted by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and Charles G. LaBella, former head of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force, both of which recommended that Reno seek the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the president's 1996 fund-raising efforts.
It is not clear whether the committee will get the campaign finance memos -- or even whether they can legally obtain them.
Republican investigators had requested the memos earlier, but U.S. District Court Judge Norma Holloway Johnson ruled Friday that the documents, which contain secret grand jury material, could not be released.
The judge also said the committee had not adequately demonstrated the need for their release.
Committee Republicans were not even certain whether Reno had the power to override Johnson's order. The judge will hold a hearing today at which Republican committee lawyers will ask her to authorize the release of the memos.
Yesterday, the panel also asked independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to release all his files on John Huang, a rogue Democratic fund-raiser, and ordered Freeh and LaBella to appear for closed-door questioning this week.
But the committee Republicans backed away from plans to subpoena the president himself. And they dropped demands for documents relating to other Democratic fund-raisers, such as Charlie Trie, Johnnie Chung and Mark Middleton.
Democrats complained that the inquiry has spun out of control, and they demanded that outgoing House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia or his presumptive successor, Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, take control of the impeachment process.
"Chaos is reigning," charged House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who dashed off a letter to Gingrich, requesting that the speaker and Livingston end the inquiry by year's end.
Lockhart, the White House spokesman, noted that committees in the Senate and House have already conducted wide-ranging investigations of campaign fund raising and have produced no evidence of wrongdoing.
For the Judiciary Committee to retrace the steps of those earlier investigations a week before a scheduled impeachment vote, Lockhart said, smacks of partisan politics.
"This has been going on for two years," Lockhart said. "This is like a bad rerun of a show that nobody wanted to watch the first time."
Hyde responded sharply that Democrats seem to fear that his committee is simply making progress. "Minority Leader Gephardt says he fears the inquiry lacks direction," Hyde said. "It is my view that his real fear is not the lack of direction, but rather the fact that we are moving in the right direction -- getting the facts."
But even some Republicans not on the committee expressed concern that the committee may have derailed the impeachment drive, just as some consensus was forming around a single article of impeachment charging the president with perjury.
"The committee was narrowing, narrowing, narrowing and narrowing, and making a fine go of things," said a frustrated leadership aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. "And this thing came out of left field. I'm just as perplexed as a lot of people."
Republicans insisted that they could expand their inquiry and still complete the impeachment process by the end of the month. But Republican members appeared to be divided on how seriously they would pursue the new phase of the investigation.
Republican Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida said a refusal to release an unedited version of the campaign finance memos would "lend credence to a pattern of obstruction" of justice.
Obstruction, he contended, has already surfaced in the president's efforts to conceal his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and to hide his alleged sexual advance toward Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer.
Last summer, Reno refused to release the memos to the campaign finance inquiry of Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, although she did show him an edited version.
"If she refuses again, we'll carry her to the Supreme Court if we have to," McCollum said, even if that meant extending the impeachment inquiry into 1999.
But it was not clear how practical that would be. If the House does not act on the impeachment matter this year, the next Congress will have to vote in January to reconvene the impeachment investigation.
Republicans will have a narrower majority next year. So Democrats could probably succeed in killing the impeachment inquiry outright -- unless Republicans uncover some highly damaging evidence in the coming weeks.
Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a committee Republican, said that even with the new campaign finance investigation, the panel will likely wrap up the impeachment proceedings this year.
Yesterday, committee Republicans moved ahead in their efforts to sway public opinion toward impeachment, orchestrating a hearing on the corrosive effect of perjury on the judicial process. But even the daylong event appeared at times to backfire on them.
The first two witnesses, Barbara Battalino and Pam Parsons, were called because both were convicted of federal offenses stemming from lying under oath about sexually related activities. But the witnesses again forced the committee to delve into private sexual matters -- an area in which, polls show, the public thinks Republicans have gone too far.
When McCollum asked Parsons whether her perjury conviction arose from consensual sex, she said no. It stemmed from her denial under oath that she had frequented a gay bar in Salt Lake City called "Puss 'N Boots."
Even one of the Republicans' own witnesses, Senior Judge Charles E. Wiggins of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, strayed from Republican expectations when he testified:
"I don't mind confessing that if I had a vote on this committee, I would vote to impeach the president. But before the full House of Representatives, I certainly am not sure. I am presently of the opinion that the misconduct admittedly occurring by the president is not of the gravity to remove him from office."
Pub Date: 12/02/98