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Attorney General Janet Reno Holds News Briefing on Gore Fund- Raising Investigation

Aired June 23, 2000 - 9:31 a.m. ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: It looks like the attorney general has taken a seat. We will go ahead and listen in.


QUESTION: Ms. Reno, I imagine the vice president is hopping mad this morning. In the middle of the presidential campaign, a report comes out of the Justice Department that a top prosecutor is -- has made a preliminary recommendation that you appoint a special counsel to investigate the vice president's statements. I think it would be inconceivable that this development would take place without some new information being developed, something other than what you've looked at and rejected in the past. Can you tell not just the reporters, but the American people, who will judge the vice president in the fall, whether some new information is propelling this latest development?

JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: The most important thing in any investigation, particularly in this time of year, is that we conduct an investigation the right way -- not in the headlines, not with pressure from people who may have differing views, but just do it right -- methodically, carefully, without commenting on it. And get it done as quickly as possible, and then make whatever decisions are the correct decisions based on the evidence and the law.

If we let some in the media -- never you -- push inappropriately, without knowing the facts, if we let people think that because they leak something they can pressure us into decisions, that just won't work.

RENO: We've got to do this as objectively and as carefully as possible, and that's what I'm committed to doing.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, with all due respect, the political damage to the vice president has already occurred. The headlines this morning took care of that. Right now you're not just talking to a bunch of reporters who are looking for headlines, you're talking to the American people who will vote in the presidential election.

RENO: That's why I looked that way.

(LAUGHTER) QUESTION: Wouldn't it be fair not only to the public but to the vice president himself if the department was as up-front and as detailed about this investigation, or inquiry or whatever you want to call it, as possible?

RENO: The worst thing you can do in an investigation is dribble it out piece by piece without presenting the whole and without completing the whole, and that's what I'm determined to do. I don't want to present half facts, I don't want to present a piece here and a piece there that may not be subsequently corroborated. I do want to do it the right way.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, have you received any allegations in this context against members of the campaign finance task force over the leaking of information of Senator Specter?

RENO: No, I have not.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, can you say when the recommendation was made to you? Was it last week?

RENO: I don't comment on any timing with respect to any details of an investigation.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you've made a number -- you saw the number of independent counsels.

QUESTION: But some of the critics say that there seems to be more scrutiny, more careful consideration, when it comes to the vice president and the president. What do you say to those critics?

RENO: That there is more?

QUESTION: More scrutiny, more careful consideration, when it's regarding the president and the vice president.

RENO: All I can tell you, that from my personal point of view, the time that I have spent on every independent counsel issue for anybody concerned has been intense and as thorough as I possibly could make it.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, what is to prevent, under your guidelines and the Justice Department guidelines, prevent the FBI from surveying any public dispute between two groups of politicians about an event, bringing one of those politicians in for questioning, and then saying because they, in effect, sided with the other side, saying, well, that person made a false statement? I mean, doesn't that at some point become a tool of intimidation? Do you have anything that governs that process?

RENO: What I want to try to do is, by my conduct, by my action, by trying to do the investigation the right way, by trying to keep it out of the headlines, I want to make sure that people are not intimidated, that things are not piecemeal provided in a way that does not get to the whole truth. I want to try to make sure that investigations get to the truth and that justice is done. QUESTION: I think what he was talking about was the possibility that the FBI, in pursuing what some people would call just a scandal, not a crime, the vice president's participation in this Hsi Lai temple fund-raiser, which arguably did not consist of any crime but is politically embarrassing, if the FBI were to keep asking questions, aren't they sort of setting him up?

RENO: I want to make sure, not in the context of this particular case, but any case, that nobody is set up, that the matter is done correctly, and that through the decisions I make I ensure an objective, fair, proper, professional investigation that gets to the ultimate end, which is justice.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, this timing, how concerned are you, whatever you decide, whatever course you take, about affecting a presidential election. This is a different type of decision than you'd been confronted with before because of the timing of this and the fact that the vice president is the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

RENO: I want to make sure that the investigation is done the right way, that it is done to seek justice, and that it is done fairly so that it does not interfere with the democratic process.

QUESTION: Have you directly spoken with Mr. Conrad on this subject yet?

RENO: I don't discuss who I talk with.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, would you have to find that there was some type of crime, at least the possibility of a crime, regarding the Hsi Lai Temple incident? Or would it be enough to appoint a special prosecutor simply because there are -- there's good evidence that the vice president may have lied during this interval?

RENO: My regs provide that: The attorney general, or in cases in which the attorney general is recused, the acting attorney general will appoint a special counsel and he or she determines the criminal investigation of a person or matter is warranted and that an investigation or prosecution of that person or matter by a United States attorney's office or litigation division of the Department of Justice would present a conflict of interest for the department or other extraordinary circumstances, and that under the circumstances it would be in the public interest to appoint an outside special counsel to assume responsibility for the matter.

It goes to say that when matters are brought to the attention of the attorney general that might warrant consideration of appointment of a special counsel, the attorney general may, A, appoint a special counsel; B, direct that an initial investigation consisting of such factual inquiry or legal research as the attorney general deems appropriate be conducted in order to better inform the decision; or, C, conclude that under the circumstances of the matter the public interest would not be served by removing the investigation from the normal processes of the department and that the appropriate component of the department should handle the matter. QUESTION: Have we already done B?

RENO: I don't comment on what I've done.

QUESTION: But if we know Mr. Conrad has already -- I'm just wondering if that's if an allegation comes in over the transom. Does the fact that there is already a campaign finance task force, Mr. Conrad has said in his testimony to Senator Specter's committee that he's investigated this, does that mean that B has already happened?

RENO: I don't comment.


QUESTION: Is it you don't comment -- if I could follow up -- is -- so the only standard in the regulations is if an investigation is warranted, so it's a very open-ended kind of standard.

RENO: That's not the only standard. If the investigation is warranted, and the investigation or prosecution would present a conflict of interest or other extraordinary circumstances, and under the circumstances it would be in the public interest to appoint a special counsel.

QUESTION: But the first sort of trip wire, warranted, is not otherwise narrowed down.

RENO: That's...

QUESTION: It's very discretionary.

RENO: That's correct.

QUESTION: In two previous instances, one involving the vice president, one involving Mr. Freeh, in which there were questions about false statements involving leaking documents that seemed to contradict things that it said, you operated under the then independent counsel statute. Is this is a very different standard you're operating under now or are you basically using the same kind of criteria?

RENO: The two are different, and I've spelled out here what the regulations provide.

QUESTION: Well, can you explain how different they are?

RENO: The Independent Counsel Act had some specific steps which required with a covered person that the act be triggered and that it prevented the attorney general or the Department of Justice from taking certain steps, such as using the grand jury and the like.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, we're entering the final phase of the presidential campaign. Can you explain to the American public how you go about making these decisions, particularly the issue of conflict of interest, because it's been well-documented, Freeh has said that the Justice Department has an inherent conflict of interest on these matters. And, again, the time of the year does seem to play in terms of the significance of the upcoming decision you have to make.

RENO: I try to look at facts, and I'm not talking about an investigation generally, I'm not talking about specifics or a specific decision.

Whether it be a special counsel, whether it be a decision to charge or not to charge, those are the issues that I look at.

When it comes to me, I take all the evidence that I have, all the information that I have. I look at the law. I hear from all the people who have expressed opinion or give them an opportunity to be heard from or read their memorandum. I look at the regs that may govern a particular situation. I try to be as thorough as I possibly can, and then I make the best judgment I can, based on the evidence and the law, and go forward.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, how important -- how much weight do you give to the fact that now not only will Louis Freeh but two other people who are your subordinates charged with heading up this investigation have now come to this conclusion? These are people, presumably, that you have confidence in, otherwise you wouldn't have appointed them to head the task force. How important is it that now different people in that same situation have come to the same conclusion about appointing an independent counsel?

RENO: They have not come to the same conclusion because, first of all, you can't comment -- or, I can't comment on the facts, and I can't really confirm for you that the two issues are the same. But if you ask the question in a more general way, there -- we have seen the LaBella and Freeh memorandum, and don't they indicate that a special counsel, or at that time an independent counsel, should have been appointed.

I think if you look at it, and you look at what has happened, it confirms that we were correct in our decision. I can't comment on the pending issue because, as I have said, it should not be conducted -- the investigation should not be conducted in the press; it should be done the right way.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, could you expand a little bit on what you mean when you say, if we now, today, look at the LaBella and Freeh memos, it would be clear that you were right at the time?

RENO: You can go through each piece of the LaBella-Freeh memo and, I think, see what our concerns were and why I made the decisions I made. I had to look at specific evidence and determine whether there was specific and credible information to believe that a crime may have been committed by a covered person. I think if you look at that, and look at all that has come out, it is clear that, based on the information that we had at the time, that judgments were correct.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, are you doing anything about that material information was apparently leaked to Senator Spector?

RENO: I'm reviewing this matter to see what would be appropriate. QUESTION: What can you -- what is -- constitutes that review. Are you questioning members of the task force who are privy to this knowledge?

RENO: I'm trying to figure out what the appropriate thing to do would be.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, there's no particular time constraint on your making this decision under this law, from my understanding. Can you give us an idea of when you might make this decision?

RENO: I cannot comment on what decision I may or may not have to make, because that would be to comment on the investigation. What I want to do is to do it complete the overall investigation as expeditiously as possible, be accountable as much as I possibly can, make the best decision I can, make it free of pressure from anybody, so that at least the American people can understand that the decision was made in the best manner I could and not by other people dictating or pressuring me into making a decision.

QUESTION: Are you still planning to testify before Senator Specter next Tuesday?

RENO: If he wants me.

QUESTION: And do you think you'll be able to tell him anything that you're not able to tell us this morning?

RENO: I don't know what he's going to ask me.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you've said the word "pressure" three times now this morning. Do you believe Senator Specter leaked this information to turn up the heat on you?

RENO: You'd have to ask him.

QUESTION: Well, what -- I mean, what do you think when you heard him make those statements? I mean, this wasn't -- this was a big secret in the department before he announced it yesterday. What other motive could there be? He's been investigating the actions of the task force for some months now.

RENO: He could say it's part of his oversight responsibility.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, a very veteran reporter that I respect said several months ago that there were three times in his life when people tried to put other people in jail because of political reasons. Once was during the McCarthy era, the second time was during Iran-Contra, and the third time is now.

Have these criminal investigations been so politicized that they have left the realm of fairness?

RENO: I would hope with all my being that the investigations that we have conducted to date and the decisions that I have made have been fair decision and have not been politicized. And I am going to do everything in my power to see that any decision that I make is made without political influence from anyone, without pressure from the media that can sometimes get it stirred up.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, the White House at the time, after these interviews, said that the vice president was told that he was not a target of the investigation. Was that a true statement?

RENO: I can't comment.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you've said -- you've made it clear, understandable, you want to make this decision without pressure from anyone. Is there a self-imposed pressure from yourself, given the calendar?

RENO: I think that any time you look at something like this, an investigation -- just, a general investigation, respecting campaign financing, that you want to conclude it as quickly as possible, consistent with achieving justice. But nothing should be rushed, because, too often, when we rush to justice, we don't get it.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, more generally, under the independent counsel statute that Ken Starr worked under, there was some feeling at least that maybe the independent counsel was running out of control and spiralling beyond their mandates. Do you have any sense whether a special prosecutor -- I think you've exercised -- you've created one special counsel so far. Do you have any sense yet whether that statute will focus counsels more on their original mandates?

RENO: It's not the...


QUESTION: ... Justice Department policy.

RENO: I would hope that justice will be achieved by all special counsels. I don't want to comment one way or the other, because I want to ensure them of the day-to-day independence that they should have.

QUESTION: What kind of access does Robert Conrad have to you? Can he -- has he in the past called you up on urgent matters, or do his decisions have to go through the chain of command before getting to you?

RENO: I don't comment, except to explain the process that I have, which is, I try to meet with him weekly.

RENO: There are times when we have to readjust the schedule, because he has matters pending outside Washington. But we try to meet at least on the average of once of week.

QUESTION: That's been true with all the campaign finance task force people.

RENO: Right. QUESTION: May I ask about the tobacco issue on the Hill? You've made it clear that you're concerned that if the Congress votes to deny the Justice Department funds to pursue a case...

KAGAN: We've been listening -- there we are. We've been listening to Attorney General Janet Reno as she gives her weekly radio -- her weekly media briefing, listening in as word has leaked out that Robert Conrad, who is the head of the Justice Department's campaign task force, will recommend that a special counsel be appointed to investigate Vice President Al Gore's 1996 fund-raising activities. This would be the second person in that job who would make that recommendation. In 1998, Charles LaBella did the same thing, and the attorney general chose not to appoint a special counsel.

The attorney general today was giving her typical, no-comment style. She did say she hopes to make a decision about this without pressure from the media or without pressure from the political world.

She will be on the hot seat again next week. She'll be called to speak in front of a Senate subcommittee -- the Senate subcommittee on judiciary matters, and Senator Arlen Specter will have some very tough questions for the attorney general on this matter.

For more on this story, you can check on, our Web site, and all the days news, plus the latest on this call for an independent investigation into the vice president's fund-raising activities.



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