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Why Reno's Tin Ear Is No Longer A Virtue

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Why Reno's Tin Ear Is No Longer A Virtue

By Richard Lacayo

Reno with blinders

TIME, April 28 -- Janet Reno can read the letter of the law. The question is whether she is missing the larger story. Last week, for the fourth time, the Attorney General decided not to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Democratic campaign fund raising. Relying on the advice of Justice Department lawyers who are conducting their own probe, she pointed to the language of the independent-counsel law. It requires "specific, credible evidence" of a crime by high-ranking federal officials. If the department inquiry turns up a smoking gun, she says, she'll pull the trigger on an investigation. But not before. "The best thing I can do is ignore the politics," she said. "I take everything based on the evidence and the law."

For Republicans her refusal was a signal to go ballistic. Taking time from finalizing his loan with Bob Dole, House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Reno should explain under oath why she opposed a special counsel. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, a sometime Reno supporter, was less bloodthirsty but no less unhappy. "There's overwhelming evidence that there may--that's all you've got to do, show that there may--have been criminal activity," he says. "You can't hide behind career prosecutors."

It is ironic that Reno should be suspected of trying to appease Bill Clinton. Whatever her shortcomings, most of Washington agrees she is nobody's crony. Last year she was deeply out of favor with the White House for appointing special counsels four times to investigate Administration scandals. The Clinton team let her dangle for weeks before deciding to keep her as Attorney General. Now her enemies say she is trying to regain favor. Friends say she's a principled legal purist. Just about everybody says that, for better or worse, she's blind to appearances. What she fails to see is that public confidence requires an investigation conducted well beyond White House reach.


At work Reno is largely isolated from astute political advice, heading a department where several top jobs, including Assistant Attorney General in charge of criminal investigations, have long been vacant. Especially since the departure several weeks ago of Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, Reno has had no one who is sensitive to vibrations beyond the conference rooms at Justice. For guidance she relies on twice-weekly meetings with Justice Department lawyers who bristle at suggestions they would not pursue an investigation wherever it leads.

They don't see a crime yet because many of the laws that might have been broken apply to donations given "to influence a federal election." They say the laws have been applied only to contributions for a specific candidate, not to the millions in so-called soft money given for party activities. All the same, most donors would admit that, no matter what channel their cash flowed through, they gave to elect Clinton or Dole. But Reno could trigger the independent-counsel statute by finding a conflict of interest that prevented her department from investigating the matter. William Barr, Attorney General under George Bush and a past critic of the statute, argues that "the primary issue is whether this is the kind of case that can be handled as business as usual." As most would agree, it has already gone well beyond that.

--Reported by Viveca Novak/Washington

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