Lawyers vs. Lawmakers
Call it a clash of cultures. On the one hand, career federal prosecutors build a case, gather evidence and then recommend whether there's enough ammunition to win a conviction. On the other, a committee of lawmakers holds hearings with an eye toward exposing and publicizing wrongdoing.
Good prosecutors work as a team, keep their cards close to the vest and stay as far from the spotlight as they can, while Members of Congress are independent operators who often engage in partisan one-upmanship, all the while hoping to attract the klieg lights.
In the past several weeks, the cultures have clashed in Washington. On one side is the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is examining 1996 campaign finance improprieties. On the other side is the Justice Department, which is also investigating these allegations.
The most recent disagreement came as lawmakers, led by Governmental Affairs Committee chairman Sen. Fred D. Thompson, R-Tenn., pushed the Justice Department to sign off on immunity for a handful of peripheral players under investigation. He wanted them to testify before the committee about allegations that President Clinton's top fund raisers in the Asian-American community--Yah Lin (Charlie) Trie and John Huang--schemed to launder foreign money for contributions to the Democratic National Committee (DNC). But the prosecutors, jealously guarding their turf and cautious about losing leverage over any witness, would not accede to the committee's request.
Finally, on July 23, frustration boiled over. Even the Democrats on the committee, with the exception of Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, could not buy Justice's arguments against immunizing four Buddhist nuns who made contributions to the DNC at a Los Angeles temple fund-raiser last year attended by Vice President Al Gore.
By taking such a tough stance on immunity and providing little rationale for it, Attorney General Janet Reno has set herself up for unusually harsh criticism of her long-standing reluctance to appoint an independent counsel to look into alleged fund-raising abuses by President Clinton's reelection campaign.
Republican leaders charged that Reno is motivated by a desire to protect Clinton and Gore. Led by Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who called the Attorney General ``General Stonewall Reno'' on NBC's Meet the Press, the GOP critics argued that the department's position was untenable. Some are even exploring how the 1978 independent counsel statute enacted in the wake of the Watergate scandal could be revised to force Reno's hand.
``There is a loss of confidence, and I think she simply has to request the appointment of an independent counsel or she will lose a lot of credibility,'' Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee said. ``It is really getting to be kind of ugly.''
On July 28, the department finally waived its right to hold up the immunity grant pushed by committee Republicans, but the entire process only exacerbated the tensions between Congress and Justice. The department's performance even puzzled some Democrats, who successfully fought to delay a committee vote on immunity until department lawyers could provide their rationale for not granting it.
Three Justice officials had come to Capitol Hill on July 22 to testify on why they opposed the proffer. By all reports, the performance was underwhelming. Citing their reluctance to discuss matters still under criminal investigation, the Justice officials declined to lay out in detail why they opposed granting immunity to bit players in foreign money-laundering schemes.
``The Justice Department people were taciturn,'' Lieberman said. ``I wish that they had pushed their own envelope a little bit in explaining their case,'' he added.
``They're asking our Members to take some pretty tough votes without supplying any facts to support their reasoning,'' said Democratic committee spokesman Jim Jordan. Indeed, some Democrats who felt that they had stuck their necks out to defend Justice on the immunity issue said the department should not ignore the fact that six of the panel's seven Democratic members voted for immunity.
Republicans complained that Justice sent over emissaries who were either insufficiently high-ranking or ill-informed about the investigation. Lieberman disputed that complaint, but he added that because the Attorney General ``is such a credible person . . . I wish she would take the opportunity to speak to the committee in closed session.''
But even that probably wouldn't mollify many Republicans who are starting to see partisan motives in just about every decision that the Justice Deparment has made on the 1996 fund-raising scandals.
While they were careful not to challenge the Justice officials' motives for not signing off on the committee's immunity grant sooner, Republican staff members claim that the delay--five days after the committee vote--precluded the GOP from adding Keshi Zhan to its witness list during the last week of hearings in July. Zhan, who was also granted immunity along with the four Buddhist nuns on July 23, played a key role in orchestrating some of Trie's laundered contributions, according to Republican investigators.
At a July 24 press conference, Reno attempted to depersonalize and depoliticize her disagreements with the Republicans. While she noted that Thompson and his committee have ``a very important role, which is oversight and legislation, our role is to investigate and to prosecute.'' She stressed ``it is just really very important that we work together, recognizing that we each have two separate roles and that we're each trying the best we can to perform those roles in the proper fashion.''
But congressional Republicans are reluctant to accept the notion that ordinary institutional tensions are at the heart of their feud with the Attorney General. ``We understand that there are differences in our responsibilities, but there are certain areas of comity which we think she has exceeded,'' said committee Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
The Republicans' problem is that they have little legal leverage. The Senate Judiciary Committee formally called on Reno to appoint an independent counsel in March. But under the statute, the Attorney General could turn down that request by simply setting forth her reasons in a letter to the committee, which she did in April. Congress can't require an Attorney General to appoint an independent prosecutor.
Specter has been exploring two other avenues to try to put the squeeze on Reno. During the Senate debate over the appropriations bill for the Departments of State, Justice and Commerce, Specter hinted that he might propose an amendment to the spending measure to modify the special counsel law, thereby triggering an appointment of an independent prosecutor in this case.
The combative Pennsylvanian, a former Philadelphia prosecutor, also suggested filing a lawsuit asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to make an appointment, on the ground that Reno has abused her discretion as a public official in not seeking an independent counsel.
Either way, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the author of the statute, argues that the law was carefully crafted to avoid congressional interference in prosecutorial decision making. ``The surest way to destroy the independent counsel statute would be for Congress to take on itself the power to initiate the petition [to the court for an independent counsel], because the Supreme Court's ruling was based on separation of powers that this [appointment power] remained in the executive branch,'' Levin said, referring to a 1988 ruling upholding the law. ``If we blow that line, we are going to lose the independent counsel statute.''
Even some Republicans are leery about following Specter into court to force Reno to act. ``I am not so sure about that,'' Hatch said. If the case got to court, one veteran GOP ethics attorney said, ``I think there would be a lot of deference given to the Attorney General's opinion.''
Four independent counsels have been appointed to investigate the Clinton Administration. But Republicans, who have never been big fans of the statute, are still not eager to expand the law in ways that might come back to haunt future GOP Presidents.
Meanwhile, the conflicts between Justice and the congressional Republicans are likely to continue. Thompson committee staff members say that the Republicans are considering more immunity requests for potential witnessess. ``We each have a job to do, and those jobs bang into each other,'' Lieberman said. ``I think there'll probably be some more bumping.''