Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Senate and House committees have asked a top Justice Department official and a key FBI executive to testify this week on their 1996 conversation on whether “pressure” was applied to scuttle a probe of campaign-finance abuses in the 1996 election.

Lee Radek, head of Justice’s office of public integrity, and FBI Deputy Director William J. Esposito are set to testify tomorrow before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee and on Thursday before the House Government Reform Committee. Both panels are investigating campaign-finance abuses.

According to a Dec. 9, 1996, memo by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, Mr. Radek told Mr. Esposito he was “under a lot of pressure not to go forward with the investigation” and that Miss Reno’s job “might hang in the balance.” The memo said Mr. Freeh met with Miss Reno and personally suggested she and Mr. Radek recuse themselves from the probe.

“Perhaps now we are a little closer to understanding why the attorney general fought so hard against an independent counsel,” said Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican and House committee chairman.

“When compared to what actually happened over the last three years, the Radek comment is not surprising,” Mr. Burton said. “Radek’s participation in the campaign-finance investigation has raised many questions.”

Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary administrative oversight and courts subcommittee, said he may seek sanctions against Miss Reno and Mr. Freeh for not disclosing documents related to his panel’s probe.

Mr. Specter said Miss Reno and Mr. Freeh should have produced the Freeh memo long ago, but turned it over only in response to a subcommittee subpoena.

“I’m very dissatisfied with the attorney general’s performance and said so many times, and I think the director has an explanation to make as to why he did not inform the public of the contents of his memo,” he said.

The House committee also has asked that Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. “produce, in person, documents related to the Department of Justice decision not to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the 1996 campaign-finance scandal.”

Mr. Burton said a three-year investigation by the committee uncovered “significant evidence” that the Justice Department had blocked efforts for an independent counsel probe into 1996 campaign-finance abuses.

“To this day, the Justice Department continues to stonewall our investigation by not turning over documents,” he said. “This is not about national security matters or matter of executive privilege. This is about the Justice Department obstructing justice by withholding documents from our committee documents that have been under subpoena for two years.

“The American people have a right to expect that the Justice Department works for the people, not as defense counsel for politicians and a political party,” he said.

The Freeh memo, according to Senate sources, suggested that Mr. Radek’s public integrity section could not conduct a thorough investigation and that Miss Reno and Mr. Radek should allow aggressive outside investigators whom he referred to as “junkyard dogs.”

In a second memo, the sources said, Mr. Freeh said the Justice Department had sought to sidestep the use of FBI agents for the campaign-finance probe. That memo said the department wanted to use investigators from the inspector general’s office at the Commerce Department instead.

Mr. Radek has denied telling anyone he was under any undue pressure, describing the accusations as having “no basis in fact.” Miss Reno said last week she did not recall being told by Mr. Freeh of the comment or his request that she and Mr. Radek step aside.

The FBI has declined comment on the memo, which was turned over under a subpoena to Senate and House investigators for an investigation of Justice’s handling of the campaign-finance probe.

After the 1996 presidential election, there was speculation Miss Reno would not be named for a second term. White House aides sought to dump her because of her willingness to investigate White House officials and appoint several independent counsels.

In her second term, she resisted an independent prosecutor for the fund-raising scandal.

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