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WALTER MEARS: Campaign fund-raising case has both sides mad

October 14, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ So Janet Reno got mad at the White House and Republicans got madder at her in the long, angry dispute over a special prosecutor to deal with campaign fund-raising cases involving President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

For the attorney general, it’s a no-win case with no easy way out.

She said as much herself earlier in the dispute _ that she’d be damned by one side or the other whatever she decided.

Reno has taken preliminary steps that could lead to the appointment of an independent counsel, and must decide by Wednesday whether there will be an extended inquiry into what Clinton did to raise campaign money.

Reno plans to extend her inquiry into Clinton’s telephone fund raising, Justice Department officials said today.

The whole business rankles the White House, where Clinton’s people insist that neither he nor Gore did anything wrong.

The attorney general isn’t judging, saying only that so far, she has no evidence that they broke the law. She said nothing has been foreclosed, and nobody has been exonerated.

Reno said Sunday she will question anyone who has information about the case, including Clinton if needed. For his part, the president told reporters Monday he is willing to do whatever is necessary ``even if she wishes to interview me.″

Clinton also said the ``Republican attacks on her have been completely unwarranted.″

``It would be hard to make the case that she was reluctant to follow the law,″ Clinton added. ``There are all kinds of procedures set up about how this law is supposed to operate. And she ought to be left alone to implement it.″

The Republicans say Reno shouldn’t be deciding whether the law has been broken. They’re insisting, as they have all year, that she should move immediately to a special prosecutor because there’s a conflict of interest. She says not, and points to her prior appointments of outside prosecutors to deal with administration cases.

``I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t,″ she said six months ago. ``So the best thing I can do is ignore the politics, ignore the pressure.″

It has intensified, with GOP demands that she resign and an impeachment threat from House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

``She looks like a fool,″ Gingrich said Saturday.

Reno retorted that she doesn’t pay much attention to him, and doesn’t heed political pressure or name-calling.

``No one can shout loud enough or write a headline big enough or use words shrill enough to keep me from doing what I think is the right thing on this investigation,″ she says now.

And she insists that the right thing is to continue a Justice Department investigation that has more than 120 agents, attorneys and aides at work on the case. To date, she said, there is no evidence of high-level crimes that would trigger the independent counsel law, in which a panel of federal judges would appoint an outside prosecutor.

She could turn it all over to an outside prosecutor now, as her Republican critics are demanding. That would take the political pressure off Reno, but she won’t do it.

Her situation wasn’t eased by the disclosure that there were videotapes of 44 White House coffees for Democratic campaign donors, and that the Justice Department wasn’t told about them immediately.

``I was mad,″ she said. But she also said nothing found on the tapes so far warrants a special prosecutor. There are more to come.

Republicans were mad, too, at the White House over the tapes tardily delivered to their congressional investigators, and at Reno because she won’t yield on an outside prosecutor.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, renewed his long-standing demand that she step aside, ``given the obvious conflict of interest.″ The attorney general will face that same pressure Wednesday when she appears before the House Judiciary Committee.

She is just as insistent that she is on the legally correct course.

Ironically, that is the kind of stubbornness Republicans once applauded. Reno has had four special prosecutors appointed in administration cases, too many for the taste of some Clinton allies, who didn’t want her around for his second term.

They floated suggestions that he’d just as soon have a new attorney general, but if that was a hint, she didn’t take it. Reno said she would be honored to stay.

Clinton couldn’t have replaced her at that point without stirring a political uproar, given her reputation for independence.

Now she’s in the middle, and points to the record that has made some people in the administration uncomfortable in the past. ``I have prosecuted Republicans and I have prosecuted Democrats,″ she said.

``I don’t think anybody can look back on these last 4 1/2 years and suggest that I haven’t done my duty.″


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Walter R. Mears, vice president and columnist for The Associated Press, has reported on Washington and national politics for more than 30 years.

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