- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2000

It was Friday, Nov. 1, 1996. Four days later, American citizens would be voting for president. For the previous three weeks, however, the media had been in a frenzy, vigorously questioning the White House and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) about numerous, highly suspicious donations to the DNC, many of which were contributed by foreign nationals, including associates of the Indonesia-based Lippo business empire controlled by the Riady family. Another extremely suspicious fund-raising issue involved a Buddhist temple, where Vice President Al Gore had visited in April 1996 and from which Democratic fund-raisers collected more than $100,000.

As vigorously as the media demanded answers, the DNC relentlessly insisted that virtually all the seemingly questionable donations were in fact entirely legitimate. (It was an utterly untenable position the DNC would be forced to reverse days after President Clinton was safely re-elected.) However, one issue in particular the Buddhist temple fund-raiser had become so politically radioactive that the DNC announced on Oct. 18, 1996, that it was reimbursing the temple $15,000 for the cost of the April luncheon attended by Vice President Gore, who adamantly insisted it was not a fund-raising event. (It is illegal to raise political donations at a non-profit religious institution.) On Oct. 29, 1996, five GOP lawmakers, including four House committee chairman and Sen. John McCain, wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno and formally called upon her to seek the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate suspected illegal fund-raising activities by the Clinton administration and the DNC. Among other factors requiring investigation by an independent counsel, the letter cited two specifically related to the Buddhist temple fund-raiser. What was not publicly known at the time was the fact that federal prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles were vigorously investigating Mr. Gore's role at the Buddhist temple.

Friday, Nov. 1, 1996, proved to be a pivotal day for Vice President Gore. On that day four days before the presidential election and two days after Republican lawmakers had petitioned Miss Reno Lee Radek, the chief of the Justice Department's oxymoronically named Office of Public Integrity wrote a memo to federal prosecutors in Los Angeles instructing them to "take no steps to investigate these matters at this time." Ostensibly, he issued his cease-and-desist order because the case might eventually involve an independent counsel, whose appointment Mr. Radek has rabidly opposed ever since. Mr. Radek ordered the prosecutors to forward to Washington all of the information they had uncovered.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Mansfield, who was investigating Mr. Gore's temple role in Los Angeles, told the New York Times last week, "It got yanked off my desk and as far as I know, nothing happened for many, many months. The consequence of a strategy of sitting back and doing nothing means you effectively make the matter go away." Indeed, after Miss Reno appointed an inexperienced, unqualified staff attorney, Laura Ingersoll, to spearhead the department's investigation, anarchy and chaos inevitably resulted. In the meantime, several people involved in the Buddhist temple fund-raiser fled the country.

Eventually, the Justice Department's task force under Mr. Radek and Miss Ingersoll had lost so much credibility that Miss Reno was forced to select a new leader, one from outside Mr. Radek's staff. She hand-picked Charles LaBella, a respected federal prosecutor from San Diego. Before Mr. LaBella arrived, however, the chaotic, unfocused investigation of Mr. Gore's role undertaken by the task force organized by Mr. Radek's public integrity section absolved the vice president of any wrongdoing regarding the illegal temple fund-raiser. (As it later developed, a federal jury convicted Maria Hsia, a longtime Gore fund-raiser, of five felony counts relating to the Buddhist temple fund-raiser.) Echoing an earlier memo by FBI Director Louis Freeh, Mr. LaBella in 1998 wrote a confidential memo to Miss Reno strongly recommending that she seek the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate both Messrs. Clinton and Gore. Miss Reno ignored the recommendations of both Mr. Freeh and Mr. LaBella. Instead, she adopted the recommendation of Mr. Radek, who, despite the chaos and anarchy that originally prevailed under Miss Ingersoll, steadfastly opposed the appointment of any independent counsel.

Mr. Radek's timely intervention on behalf of Mr. Gore in November 1996 and his later successful arguments against the appointment of an independent prosecutor were not the only times he acted in ways that significantly helped the White House avoid the diligence of tenacious investigators. As Jerry Seper recounted in Tuesday's edition of The Washington Times, four FBI agents assigned to the campaign finance task force accused Mr. Radek of impeding or delaying the task force's probe. The agents had discovered that fund-raising scandal suspect Charlie Trie's assistant was systematically destroying evidence that implicated Trie, who eventually pleaded guilty to a felony charge. Nevertheless, Mr. Radek and Miss Ingersoll blocked the FBI's efforts to obtain the search warrant its agents had requested. Four months after the agents requested the warrant, by which time Mr. LaBella had replaced the overwhelmed Miss Ingersoll, the warrant was finally approved.

Sound familiar? It's worth recalling that it was also Miss Reno's Justice Department that repeatedly rejected FBI requests to obtain court permission to electronically monitor the computer of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at the Los Alamos nuclear-weapons lab whom the FBI suspected of being a spy for Communist China. Mr. Lee was eventually indicted for his unauthorized computer downloading of highly sensitive U.S. nuclear secrets, but many of the computer tapes remain missing.

Timely and highly convenient interventions by Janet Reno's politicized Justice Department have repeatedly helped Messrs. Clinton and Gore by preventing or delaying embarrassing revelations and by shielding them from aggressive investigations. For the sake of protecting the White House, Miss Reno and her minions have damaged national security and flouted the law, a political legacy that will stain Miss Reno's tenure forever.

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