- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2000


Janet Reno isn't a real attorney general. She just plays one. What other conclusion could be drawn from the remarkable interview that NBC's Tim Russert conducted on "Meet the Press" this week with Charles LaBella, the former head of a Justice Department task force investigating alleged violations of campaign-finance laws?
Mr. LaBella told Mr. Russert that he never had a "substantive conversation" with Miss Reno after he submitted a memo in July 1998 recommending the appointment of an independent counsel to examine campaign fund-raising by President Clinton, Vice President Gore, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes. Mr. Russert then asked Mr. LaBella what Miss Reno's deputies told him. "I didn't have a conversation with anybody substantively about the memo. I have never to this day had a conversation with anybody about my memo at the Justice Department," Mr. LaBella replied. "I handed it in. I really believed in my heart of hearts that it was going to start a dialogue." Mr. LaBella said his memo was "an interim report … not a final report. This was not the end of the day." In fact, as far as Miss Reno was concerned, it was the end of the day for Mr. LaBella, who, after the attorney general rejected his recommendation without offering him any reason why, promptly returned to San Diego.
It's worth recalling the September 1997 circumstances under which Miss Reno handpicked Mr. LaBella, a seasoned white-collar prosecutor from the San Diego U.S. attorney's office, to lead the Justice Department's campaign-finance task force. At the time, the task force was mired in chaos. Reporters, not the task force, were doing most of the detective work. Mr. LaBella brought with him several experienced field prosecutors and credibility that had been sorely lacking up to that point.
Throughout his nine-month tenure as head of the task force, Mr. LaBella told Miss Reno in his July 1998 memo, career Justice Department officials engaged in legal "contortions" and "gamesmanship" to avoid an independent investigation of the Clinton-Gore campaign's fund-raising abuses.
Moreover, completely contradicting Miss Reno's assertions to Congress that no serious rifts occurred among the task force members, one of the field prosecutors brought in by Mr. LaBella told the Los Angeles Times that senior Justice officials engaged in "unprecedented hostility" toward the field prosecutors. In a December 1997 memo, field prosecutor Steve Clark said high-level Justice officials hampered efforts to investigate possible corruption by engaging in "behind-the-scenes maneuvering, personal animosity, distortions of fact and contortions of law." Mr. LaBella told Mr. Russert Sunday that field prosecutors "resigned from the task force in frustration because they felt there was legal gamesmanship being played in the Department of Justice." (After nine months, Mr. LaBella, too, was gone.) He said members of his team couldn't get the job done because they were "engaged in meeting after meeting after meeting debating whether or not we should open up an investigation on facts that clearly demonstrate the need for an investigation to be opened."
None of this squares with Miss Reno's assurances to Congress that the task force operated without serious disagreements within its ranks. It does help explain why she has refused to make Mr. LaBella's memo public. Given her assurances to Congress that have now been utterly refuted, moreover, it seems equally clear that Mr. Gore is not the only senior administration official who "may have provided false testimony," as Mr. LaBella's memo states. Her refusal to investigate that is one more failure to add to her legacy.

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