Reno Criticizes Independent Counsel Law


Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, who has recommended appointment of no fewer than seven independent counsels, told skeptical senators Wednesday that the counsel statute is so flawed that the Justice Department could do a better job of investigating cases involving high-level government officials.

Reno, who urged six years ago that the then-expired law be reinstated, acknowledged that she had changed her mind. She said her belief in the independent counsel law has been destroyed by watching too many investigations get “plunged into the political process.”

But several members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, some still angry over Reno’s refusal to seek an outside counsel to investigate Democratic fund-raising practices, expressed strong disagreement with her view that the Justice Department should take responsibility “for all but the most exceptional cases against high-ranking public officials.”


Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), the committee chairman, declared that “to rely on the attorney general’s discretion raises questions in my mind.” Others said that the public would lack confidence in sensitive investigations unless someone who was not beholden to the administration in power directed such inquiries.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that allowing the Justice Department to look into allegations of wrongdoing against government officials “could create an inherent conflict of interest, or at least the perception of that, no matter how much integrity the attorney general has.”

Reno agreed that “there will be times when the attorney general will have a conflict of interest.” In those instances, she added, she could appoint an outside counsel under the department’s own regulations.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the committee’s ranking Democrat, told Reno that he favors keeping an independent counsel law with several major revisions, including stringent controls on the length, cost and scope of such investigations.

With the law set to expire June 30, House and Senate committees have begun considering whether to revise it or let it die. Against the backdrop of heavy criticism of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, whose five-year, $40-million investigation began with an Arkansas land deal and expanded last year to focus on President Clinton’s affair with a former White House intern, it is unlikely that the law will be renewed in its current form.

Reno has been examining allegations of prosecutorial misconduct by Starr’s office, including reports that his staff sought to negotiate an immunity deal with Monica S. Lewinsky, the former intern, early last year without her lawyers present. Starr has insisted that his actions were proper at all times.

Without mentioning Starr by name, Reno referred to her own inquiry as another reason the department should handle most investigations involving government officials, as it did before the independent counsel law was first passed in 1978.

Thompson said that he hopes to obtain testimony from Starr “if he feels he can do it without compromising his continuing investigation.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he remains unhappy that Reno overruled a recommendation from FBI Director Louis J. Freeh to appoint an independent counsel in the political fund-raising matter.

A Justice Department prosecutor who supported Freeh’s proposal--Charles G. LaBella, who was directing the department’s fund-raising inquiry--appeared before the committee Wednesday but declined to criticize Reno.

LaBella, whose expected appointment as U.S. attorney in San Diego was sidetracked by the dispute, said: “I did what I could in 17 years as a federal prosecutor and I’m happy to move on” to private life.

Thompson commended LaBella for his integrity, adding: “You paid a price, it seems to me.”


Video excerpts from the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee’s hearing on the independent counsel statute are available on The Times’ Web site: