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Janet Reno Holds News Conference at U.S. Atty's Office in Miami

Aired April 13, 2000 - 12:00 p.m. ET


JEANNE MESERVE, CNN ANCHOR: Nerves are on edge as the latest deadline in the Elian Gonzalez custody battle approaches, and Attorney General Janet Reno is appealing for calm as time ticks away. At 2:00 p.m. Eastern Elian's relatives are to deliver him to Opa-Locka Airport north of Miami for a flight here to the D.C. area.

Elian's great uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, says he will not relinquish the child, as the government will have to come to his home and take him.

As events are unfold in Miami, Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, is here in suburban Washington, waiting. He, his wife and infant son arrived here a week ago.

Despite the seemingly imminent custody handover, members of the Cuban-American community in Miami remain adamantly opposed to it.

CNN's Susan Candiotti joins us now for more on that.

Susan, let me ask you first, is the family going to file an injunction to stop the handover?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, just a little while ago, I was told by one of the attorneys, one of the attorney's representatives, that in fact that that is their intention, that the paperwork's finishing touches are still being made as we speak.

However, it was told me by the family spokesperson for the Gonzalez family here moments ago, that this family and the attorneys are now waiting to see what U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has to say, as we expect her to speak shortly any time now before they issue anything or file any kind of injunction, they first want to see what Janet Reno has to say, whether she intends to make them any final offers before they respond in court -- Jeanne.

MESERVE: What is the scene there now, how many are assembled?

CANDIOTTI: I would say a few hundred demonstrators. It started off with a little less than that in the morning hours, but it has grown, and it has now seemed to peek at that numbers, a few hundred demonstrators. They are respectful of the police orders so far to remain behind barricades. No one has made any attempt to cross them. The barricades are in fact chained together. And Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's great-uncle, is I believe still standing there at this point. If not, he was certainly there for the last several minutes, addressing this crowd, thanking them for his support. Coming up and in fact pointing a finger to them, and thanking them very much.

There is, however, a very powerful and yet quiet police presence here. They are making their presence known, letting people know here that they don't intend to put up with any shenanigans, not that any have been promised, people here plan to be peaceful. And authorities here, however, promise that they will carry out the law.


LT. BILL SCHWARTZ, MIAMI POLICE: If indeed the boy has to be physically removed by force from the house that is going to be a federal operation. That is not a Miami police operation. However, we are here to keep the peace and make sure nobody gets hurt. That's always been our job.


CANDIOTTI: According to the Miami police, earlier this day, there was a request by federal authorities to move news reporters out from across in front of the area in front of the house. That request was turned down by the chief of Miami's police department.

Now these demonstrators say that if, and no decision had been made, if there is an attempt by federal authorities to come to this house to remove this child, there are promising peaceful resistance. Other than that, Jeanne, we can say everyone here is calling this a chess game, wondering who is going to make the next move.

Susan Candiotti, CNN, reporting live.

MESERVE: And we are going to go now to Attorney General Janet Reno speaking in Miami about the case.


JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: ... to explain the efforts to resolve the Elian Gonzalez matter and to address the misunderstandings that sometimes exist in a terribly tense situation such as this.

Elian's Miami relatives have asked to meet privately with Juan Miguel Gonzalez, his father, to have the chance to try to convince him that Elian should stay here, and barring that, to at least reassure themselves that he is truly speaking for himself. We have arranged an opportunity for such a meeting, and that opportunity still exists. As I stated last night in my meeting with Elian's Miami relatives, as well as in our letter to Mr. Lazaro Gonzalez and in my statement to the press, we have made arrangements for Lazaro Gonzalez and his family to be flown to Washington, D.C., at no expense to themselves, to meet with Juan Miguel privately.

The meeting would take place before Elian is transferred to his father's care. It would take place at a private retreat site where this family can finally sit down, face to face, and try to work things out among themselves.

If they could work things out amongst themselves, the government would step aside. But if at the end of the day they could not reach agreement, the relatives would abide by the rule of law.

We stand by this offer, and Juan Miguel Gonzalez has agreed to participate. Unfortunately, Lazaro Gonzalez and his family have refused these arrangements.

Secondly, another rumor that exists is that the government is federalizing the streets around Lazaro Gonzalez's home and ejecting the media. These rumors are wrong, flat-out wrong. We have not taken any such steps and have no plans to do so.

I can also assure the public that they will not see marshals at 2:01 today attempting to remove the child by force.

I am prepared to enforce the law, but I want to be clear that if we are compelled to enforce our order, we intend to do so in a reasonable, measured way, the approach that we have always taken in this matter.

We have the authority to take action, but reasonable authority means not only be able to take action, but knowing when and how to take that action.

Finally, the lawyers for Elian's relatives have informed us that they may be filing for a temporary injunction with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Our attorneys will review that motion and respond appropriately in court.

Despite all the tension, it was wonderful to look out the window this morning and to see this beautiful city lying out beyond the bay, to look to the west towards the Everglades, to look to the Spanish tiles on the roof of the federal building, to realize that this community represents America and all that it is about. It represents America and the people who have come to this land for freedom, for opportunity, for the right to speak their mind free of violence.

It is a great community and a community that if we come together in this time of tension, where people obviously disagree, with tremendous emotion, but if we come together, if we respect each other, if we respect the rule of law, we can work through it.

QUESTION: Madam Attorney General, you talked about a reasonable, measured response, if need be, after 2:00. Can you give us some more detail on what the plan might be?

RENO: The response has to be gauged on what is being done. We are going to continue to do everything we can to see that the matter is resolved, that people have the opportunity to talk, as we have provided for in the letter, and we're going to measure it as the responses come in. QUESTION: Attorney General, when did Lazaro Gonzalez tell you that they would not be flying to Washington, that he would not take up your offer?

RENO: I have not heard specifically anything from Lazaro Gonzalez.

QUESTION: I thought you said that he had refused that arrangement.

RENO: I've not heard directly from him.

QUESTION: OK. Who informed you and when did they inform you?

RENO: We have been informed during the course of the evening and this morning that the family would not be accepting those terms.

QUESTION: Attorney General, have you viewed the videotape that the family released of Elian speaking? And did you have -- do you have any opinion of what you saw?

RENO: No, I have not.

QUESTION: Attorney General Reno, how come the INS and Justice Department didn't take measures last night to remove the boy from Sister Jeanne's home along with the family when it was a more secure situation?

RENO: We're trying to do this fairly, straightforwardly, without playing games with people. Under the law, we can file a letter and deliver a letter to the person who has the parole and care of the child, in this instance, Mr. Lazaro Gonzalez. We can advise him immediately and forthwith that we are terminating parole and care, or we can do it in a measured way, presuming that everybody will work together to try to resolve it and without precipitous action.

We want to do that, we want to be fair, we wanted to give them the opportunity at 2:00 this afternoon to be able to get on that airplane -- that offer still exists -- to go to Washington, to talk to Juan Gonzalez, to try to persuade him to stay, to try to persuade him to leave Elian here if he didn't stay. They had that opportunity, they still have that opportunity, and to take that child under those circumstances would not be right. We've tried to be as open and as straightforward as we could be.

QUESTION: But at what point does that opportunity expire for them? And at what point do you say, we've got to get moving forward?

RENO: One of the points that I think is important is that the media has got to understand that this a real-life situation and you don't do what-if's. You take it as it comes and you try to work through it, trying to do it in a reasoned and measured way.

QUESTION: Could you just clarify legally how it would work if they were to file a temporary injunction? Would the government still have the right to enforce the letter you've already sent? What scenario might play out? I know it's hypothetical, but...

RENO: Well, we will leave it be hypothetical, and see what happens as it happens.

QUESTION: Madam Attorney General, how long do you intend to personally be at the forefront here in Miami of all these negotiations and developments? How long are you going to stay in town and handle this yourself?

RENO: Again, what we're trying to do is work through the issues. I can't tell what's going to happen, and so I can't tell you where I'm going to be and when I'm going to be there.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, there are thousands of people outside the (inaudible) and every minute that passes, more people are going there. Some of these people believe they can persuade you from taking any action by forming a human chain around the house. They believe that the law is unjust and it should be defied. How would you -- what would you tell these people right now that are listening and hearing you right now, what would you tell them directly?

RENO: That I'm trying to do this in a way that is fair to all concerned. Fair to the father, who is the parent of this child, who cares deeply for the child. Fair to Marisleysis, who has done such a loving job of caring for the child. I'm trying to work through an extraordinary human tragedy. And the importance in working through it is that we do so in good faith, without violence, without having to cause further disruption to the little boy.

QUESTION: Attorney General Reno, we understand that the Justice Department, your office, asked the Miami Police Chief Bill O'Brien to move the media away from the home. We understand that his response was the streets belong to the people. In other words, he refused to move the media away from the home to provide for better security. Could you respond to that?

RENO: I have not asked him and would never ask him. My father was a police reporter for the Miami Herald for 43 years.


He kept his office in the Miami Police Department because I think he liked the police better than he did the media.

QUESTION: Are Lazaro's lawyers doing enough to let him know how serious this is, that he should comply?

RENO: I would have to let them speak for themselves.

QUESTION: Do you feel they're doing enough?

RENO: I'm not privy to the conversations, so they would have to speak for themselves.

QUESTION: Madam Attorney General, if 2:00 comes and goes and they haven't gotten on the plane, what's the next specific thing you do? Do you call them and say here's plan B, or here's what we're thinking about? What's the next thing that you do once you see that they have not complied?

RENO: I will make that determination at that time.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno? Ms Reno?

QUESTION: Are you prepared to live with the consequences, if violence erupts over this in your home town?

RENO: Those are the questions the media ask, and they create a situation. I prefer to look at it from the point of view of let us not have violence. Let us create a model in this community that defies the model of Castro. Let us create the model in this community of free expression, of respect for others, of respect for the rule of law, and let us by our example show Castro what this land truly means.

I think this community has the opportunity to show just what it can do.


QUESTION: Ms. Reno, do you think it will be a matter of days or a day or weeks even before Elian is reunited with his father?

RENO: I don't speculate. We want to do it in an orderly, deliberate and fair way.

QUESTION: Is it fair to say still that at this point it is still a possibility, perhaps even a probability, that marshals will have to enter the home in order to return Elian to his father?

RENO: I think I would leave it for you to speculate, but I ask you now to speculate. I ask us to be good lawyers, good newspaper people, and take the events as they come.


QUESTION: It's still a possibility?

QUESTION: Did you speak to Elian last night? And, if so, would you share with us what he said to you?

RENO: He didn't speak to me. I asked everybody who wanted to be heard. I told him that I was glad to meet him. And I think that was the sum of it.


QUESTION: Is it true he sat on your lap, because that was reported this morning?

RENO: No, he didn't sit on my lap.


QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you've said that...

RENO: I would like to see the day, though, where I can meet Elian wherever he is, and sit down and talk to him, not about the trauma and tragedy that he's been through, but about himself and what his interests are.

RENO: He is obviously a wonderful little boy.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you talked about...


QUESTION: ... is Juan Gonzalez on any timetable for staying in this country, where the situation has concerned you?

RENO: He has indicated that if he had the parole and care of the child, he would remain pending the resolution of the appeal.

QUESTION: Madam Attorney General, did you see the video of Elian saying he didn't want to go to Cuba this morning?


STAFF: OK. One more question.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, if the deadline do come and nothing happen, will you hold another press conference to let us know?


RENO: I think you'll will be able to cover it without a press conference. But I'm going to try to be as responsive as I can to issues of clarification.

Thank you.


QUESTION: ... coming to Miami?

RENO: We'll see.

MESERVE: You've been listening to Attorney General Janet Reno, speaking in Miami, about the Elian Gonzalez case. She said repeatedly she wanted to deal with this in a fair and even-handed way. She wanted to be reasonable. She wanted to be measured.

She said that the offer still stands for the Miami family, the family of Lazaro Gonzalez, to fly to the Washington, D.C. area free of charge to meet at a neutral site with Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who is of course the father of young Elian.

He said this would be a private meeting and if the family could work it out amongst itself, then the federal authorities would step back. However, if the family could not work it out, then the rule of law would be enforced. As you know, a letter has been sent to the family of Lazaro Gonzalez saying that young Elian should be taken to Opa-Locka Airport near Miami at 2:00 this afternoon. However, Janet Reno said, you would not see marshals at 2:01 going to the house if the boy has not been taken to the airport.

When asked what she would do at 2:00, she said we will make that determination at that time.

She did, however, say that the department was prepared to enforce the rule of law, but would do it in a measured and reasonable way.



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