- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000

Former Justice Department investigator Charles LaBella yesterday blamed Attorney General Janet Reno's refusal to name an independent investigator to look into the 1996 White House fundraising scandals on bureaucratic infighting rather than a desire to protect the president.

"It wasn't politics. It was never politics," Mr. LaBella said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"I don't think anybody was protecting anybody… . I really don't believe that the attorney general in any way, shape or form was protecting anybody, or anybody else at the Justice Department was politically protecting anybody," Mr. LaBella said.

He also denied that the White House had in any way obstructed his investigation when he headed a Justice Department task force looking into accusations of illegal fund raising.

"I think they were as responsive as they could be," he said. "And … we had trouble getting documents out of the White House. But I don't think it was intentional."

Mr. LaBella, who was transferred off the task force after recommending that Miss Reno appoint an outside investigator, has become an important symbol for critics of the White House. In 1998, while still on the task force, he wrote a memo to Miss Reno recommending that she name an independent counsel to investigate the actions of the president, vice president, first lady and some top aides recommendations Miss Reno pointedly ignored.

That memo remains secret, but it was excerpted last month in the Los Angeles Times, which quoted Mr. LaBella accusing Justice Department lawyers of engaging in "gamesmanship" and legal "contortions" to justify refusing to name an independent counsel. The memo says there was clearly a "pattern of conduct worthy of investigation."

Republicans quickly seized on the memo, and the fact that Miss Reno refuses to release the text, as evidence that there is was a cover-up.

"We knew Justice was doing everything they could" to protect the president, but "we did not know until now the extent to which they went to keep a lid on it," said Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the committee that investigated the 1996 scandals.

But Mr. LaBella, who quit the Justice Department a year ago after being passed over for promotion, yesterday distanced himself from critics of the White House.

"I think a little bit of that has been taken a little bit out of context," he said of his words quoted in the Los Angeles Times article.

Mr. LaBella said there was "credible" information that the White House had violated campaign-finance laws, but he did not expect that the president or other key officials would have been prosecuted, even if there had been an independent investigation.

"I think most of these [accusations], if not all of them, would have washed out," he said.

Although Mr. LaBella downplayed the idea of a cover-up, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a harsh critic of the administration's behavior in 1996, said his comments did nothing to exonerate the attorney general.

"A cloud will remain over this issue until such time as there is a full and complete investigation," he said on the same program.

NBC said Miss Reno declined an invitation to appear on the program. Later, on CBS' "Face the Nation," White House Chief of Staff John Podesta defended Miss Reno's handling of the case.

"The Justice Department, I believe, followed the law in handling this case and did so appropriately," he said. "They're continuing to investigate the matter, and I think they'll take appropriate action."

While Mr. LaBella refused to join those who see a political motive in Miss Reno's decision, he did express disapproval of her lack of action.

"Because I think what was lost here was that the American people didn't have confidence that the matter was looked at and washed out appropriately by the numbers on the merits not that it's not going to be washed out, but that it was washed out on the merits," he said.

He said it is obvious that Democrats were using the White House to raise money, but the matter needed more investigation.

"There's no question that access was used as a quid pro quo for contributions. I don't think anybody is denying that," he said. "The level of knowledge at the White House it was clear that this was intended to attract donations, which is not to say it's illegal."

Mr. Podesta dismissed Mr. LaBella's comments.

"Donors do get access to political figures on Capitol Hill… . [So do] the presidency's donors, when he goes to fund-raisers," he said. "I don't think there's anything shocking about that."

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