Reno in hot seat; defends actions

Associated Press Published:

One GOP senator, Orrin Hatch of Utah, said he's asking FBI director Louie Freeh to bypass Reno, his boss, and investigate allegations of Democratic impropriety in fund raising.

"I have no doubt that the political appointees in the department who have been influencing her are doing nothing but protecting the president," Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Hatch said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, shot back: "Was it protecting the president when she appointed four independent counsels that all took aim at the White House?" Before the cameras were turned on, Glenn flashed Reno a thumb-to-forefinger OK sign and told her he admired her for standing up to her principles on the independent counsel decision.

On Tuesday, Reno announced her decision not to request a court-appointed independent counsel to look into fund-raising calls that President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore made from the White House. In a 69-page brief and accompanying news conference, she said they had broken no federal laws.

Furious over Reno's decision, Republicans used Sunday's talk show circuit to lob a series of threats at her and the Justice Department.

Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday" that the panel will consider recommending a contempt of Congress charge if she refuses to comply with its subpoena seeking Freeh's memo endorsing an independent counsel.

"We're going to reach maybe a little crisis here," Burton said. Asked whether he would cite Reno for contempt, he said: "That's the step we'll have to look at next."

But with a chuckle, he acknowledged an inherent problem with that action: "Obviously if we cited her for contempt, it would have to go to the Justice Department for carrying out that contempt citation. And she would be making the decision on that."

Reno did not rule out sending Burton the memo, with sensitive information blacked out.

On "Face the Nation," Reno insisted: "I'm not protecting anybody. If I were protecting people, I'd close up the shop and go home."

She added that Clinton and Gore are not out of the woods.

"We have not closed this investigation in any way," she said. "No one has been exonerated."

Republicans contended that's not reason enough for her to continue an investigation of the man who appointed her, which both the GOP and FBI director Freeh consider a conflict of interest.

Hatch surprised Glenn on the program with the disclosure that he plans to send Freeh a letter Monday asking him to investigate Democratic fund-raising irregularities separately from Reno, even though the FBI is part of the Justice Department.

"He should conduct an independent investigation without regard to the Justice Department, other than reporting to them and cooperating with them and talking to them," said Hatch. "He should do it independently, because that's the only way we're going to have, it seems to me, a way around these conflicts of interest that clearly exist."

Hatch's House counterpart, Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., said his panel will hold hearings on how to overhaul the Justice Department _ with a critical eye trained especially on the Public Integrity Section, which advises Reno on the fund-raising probe.

"It's a little difficult to have confidence looking at their track record," Hyde said on "Fox News Sunday." "We're going to look at everything, we're going to look at the people who run them, their attitudes how much they spend. We can fashion legislation that will accomplish what we think are the appropriate goals for the Justice Department."

In a separate development, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., whose Governmental Affairs Committee held inconclusive hearings on the fund-raising question, said his panel would refer criminal perjury charges against several witnesses.

He identified none of them, but The Washington Times newspaper reported

Saturday that one would be Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

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