Senior Justice Department prosecutors are recommending that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno seek appointment of an independent counsel to investigate allegations against Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman, government sources said Friday.
If Reno accepts their recommendation, which comes after a five-month preliminary investigation, she will petition the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals early next week to name the sixth special counsel to investigate the Clinton administration since it took office in January 1993.
The department's preliminary inquiry has looked into allegations that Herman, while working as a White House aide, accepted cash in exchange for using her influence to help business ventures. She has denied the charges, publicly and vehemently.
Federal sources said that the inquiry by Justice's public integrity section, assisted by a team of FBI agents, has not concluded that Herman violated any laws. Rather, the section's lawyers determined that the accusations cannot be dismissed without a grand jury taking sworn testimony and issuing subpoenas, neither of which is legally permissible until an outside counsel is appointed under the Ethics in Government Act.
Bert Brandenburg, Reno's chief spokesman, said that he could not discuss the department's findings. But the attorney general could announce as early as Monday whether she intends to seek an outside counsel, he said.
Other sources said that Reno normally would follow the recommendation of her top prosecutors in such a sensitive case.
The inquiry has been based in part on statements by Laurent Yene, a businessman from the West African nation of Cameroon, that Herman sought to sell her influence from 1994 to 1996, while she headed the White House Office of Public Liaison. Yene has claimed that he once delivered an envelope containing cash to Herman at her home on behalf of business interests.
Neil Eggleston, a Washington attorney representing Herman, said that neither he nor his client would comment until Reno discloses her course of action. Eggleston is a former White House associate counsel who has known Herman from their work in the White House during Clinton's first term.
Earlier this year, Herman told reporters that she knew the department was "obligated to look into certain allegations that have been made against me." But she added: "I want you to know that these allegations are not true."
Clinton, asked several months ago about allegations that Herman had sold access to the White House, said: "I don't believe that for a minute." And White House officials have said that the president continues to have "full faith and confidence" in Herman.
Yene, her chief accuser, is a 43-year-old entrepreneur who has been feuding with Vanessa Weaver, Herman's former business partner and longtime friend. He first went public with his charges about payoffs in a television interview with ABC News in January.
He said he has given federal investigators bank documents that he says show a complex financial scheme to funnel to Herman a 10% cut of the consulting fees he received from a client who needed help getting a license for a satellite telephone system.
Yene once shared a business with Weaver, who bought out Herman's management consulting firm for $88,000 when Herman joined the Clinton White House in 1993. Yene subsequently attended White House functions with Weaver, arranged by Herman, at least 29 times, according to White House records.
Herman, in her initial administration post, was an influential political figure who served as a point of contact between the administration and a wide variety of interest groups.
During Herman's Senate confirmation hearings last year, after Clinton tabbed her as secretary of Labor for his second term, Yene alleged in other media interviews that Herman also had done favors for Weaver. But he mentioned no money at that point.
Herman said at that time: "I have never been a party to anyone's effort to exploit their relationship with me for profit or to take advantage of my position in the White House."
She added that, "given my position at the White House, I recognize that I should have been more attentive to the fact that even social interactions might, without my knowledge, serve a commercial purpose for others."
E. Lawrence Barcella, Weaver's attorney, has called Yene "an embittered former boyfriend." Weaver "poured money into a company she started for him, and he was personally and professionally unfaithful," Barcella said.
The most prominent independent counsel investigation of the administration is headed by Kenneth W. Starr and was started four years ago to determine whether Clinton and his wife, while in Arkansas, knowingly were part of a fraudulent land scheme known as Whitewater. But this investigation quickly expanded its scope and currently is focusing on whether Clinton encouraged former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky to lie under oath about whether they had a sexual relationship.
Two other independent counsels have looked into charges that former Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, now a Los Angeles businessman, lied to FBI agents, and that former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy accepted gratuities from companies doing business with his department. Both Cisneros and Espy, who have denied wrongdoing, are awaiting trial on their indictments.
Another independent counsel resigned two years ago after his subject, Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, was killed in a plane crash in Croatia.
The most recent independent counsel to be appointed is Carol Elder Bruce, who was named in March to investigate whether Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt lied to the Senate about his role in rejecting an Indian casino in Wisconsin.