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Reno Rejects GOP Demands To Designate Special Counsel

By Elizabeth Shogren and Marc Lacey
Los Angeles Times

Attorney General Janet Reno defied congressional Republicans Monday, rejecting their demand that she seek appointment of an independent counsel to investigate possible fund-raising violations during the 1996 presidential campaign.

Reno's decision came despite warnings from House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., that failure to arrange for an independent counsel would be seen as a sign that she is caving in to pressure from the White House.

In making their demand, Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee argued that it would "raise an inherent conflict of interest" for President Clinton's Justice Department to conduct the investigation into the campaign financing controversies swirling around the White House and Democratic Party.

But Reno, in a letter to Judiciary Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, said that "based on the facts and the law" she had determined that there was no basis for appointing an independent counsel.

"At this time we have no specific, credible evidence that any covered White House official may have committed a federal crime" in any of the areas addressed by the congressional Republicans, Reno said in her 10-page letter to Hatch.

Reno's letter, in addition to explaining her reasons for not seeking an independent counsel, also represented the most extensive explanation offered yet by the Justice Department of why the mounting allegations of campaign finance improprieties by the administration do not add up to criminal offenses.

At the same time, Reno stressed that her department is constantly receiving new information. If future developments warrant it, Reno said, she will seek an independent counsel.

Immediate responses from Republican leaders made it clear that Reno's position is likely to exacerbate the already acrid partisan bickering over the subject.

But Lott, who last month pushed through the Senate a motion calling on Reno to recommend an independent counsel, said Monday that her decision was "inexcusable.

"There is a clear conflict of interest when the attorney general appointed by the president is called upon to investigate possible illegal acts by the vice president or other high-ranking administration officials," Lott said in a statement.

Gingrich also made blistering remarks about Reno's decision.

"As a historian, I do not see any possible way for the attorney general to defend the decision not to have an independent counsel," he said at a York, Pa., fund-raiser.

Gingrich added that Reno's reluctance to call for an outside investigator brings "into question whether she is the protector of the president or the enforcer of the law."

White House officials, in an effort to show that Reno had not been badgered into the decision, had little to say about the matter.

"Our position on this is well known," spokesman Barry Toiv said. "It is a matter that needs to be decided by the law, and it is a decision for the attorney general to make."

Reno argued in her letter that the Justice Department task force of career prosecutors and FBI agents is perfectly capable of carrying out the investigation.

"I have confidence that the career professionals in the department will investigate this matter in a fashion that will satisfy the American people that justice has been done," Reno said.

She also outlined the reasons for her conclusion that there is no "specific and credible evidence that a crime may have been committed" by White House officials covered by the special counsel law, despite the countless charges by Republicans in Congress and stories carried by the media.

Officials covered by the law include Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Cabinet members and other top administration officials.

In response to the Republicans' suggestions that foreign contributors may have made donations in hopes of influencing U.S. foreign policy decisions, Reno insisted that there is no indication of criminal complicity by any top administration officials.

Addressing the question of whether the White House coordinated the raising and spending of soft money for the Democratic National Committee in a way that broke the law, Reno said the Justice Department does not agree that it is illegal for candidates to coordinate their party's fund-raising efforts.