Reno under fire

One federal jurist has shocked even hardened Washington insiders by suggesting that Clinton has declared "war" on the U.S. in his battle with Ken Starr.

Topics: Bill Clinton,

Under increasing pressure from Senate Republicans, Attorney General Janet Reno is now facing an unprecedented attempt to force her to recommend yet another independent counsel, this time to investigate alleged campaign finance violations by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore during the 1996 election.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch and the other Republicans on the panel are now studying a draft lawsuit against Reno, drawn up by committee member Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn, that accuses her of ignoring evidence of federal election law violations by Clinton, Gore and their staffs, and asks the court to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the evidence. Specter says he’s confident that a majority of Republicans on the committee will join the lawsuit and that this group will have standing to file the petition, as early as next month.

“I think the conclusions [of the lawsuit] are very strong,” says Specter, a former prosecutor.

Specter’s draft charges that Reno has ignored what he calls “overwhelming evidence” that Clinton violated election laws by raising money illegally from foreign contributors; that Gore improperly raised money with telephone solicitations from the White House; and that both directed so-called soft money to be spent on illegal election ads. The suit also accuses Reno of failing to act on evidence gathered by the Justice Department that the Chinese government may have funneled money into Clinton’s campaign to influence the outcome of the 1996 election.

Specter argues that under the law, such a wide body of evidence obligates Reno to appoint an independent counsel.

Pressure on Reno is building in the wake of a confidential report by the departing chief of the Justice Department’s campaign finance investigation. Thursday’s New York Times, quoting a government official, said the prosecutor, Charles La Bella, had concluded that Reno has no alternative other than recommending the appointment of a special prosecutor. Coming from a veteran prosecutor familiar with the evidence gathered to date, the report would be politically dangerous for Reno to ignore.

A Justice Department spokesman said Reno was studying the report and had no further comment.

“There is a limit to a prosecutor’s authority in not enforcing the law as it is plainly written, and there is a remedy that permits the courts to step in and require the prosecutor, in this case the attorney general, to enforce the laws of the United States,” said Specter’s press secretary, John Elliott.



Reno’s problems with the Senate Republicans over the campaign finance scandal are not new. Late last year, after Sen. Fred Thompson conducted lengthy hearings about election law abuses, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent Reno a written appeal asking her to recommend the appointment of an independent counsel. Reno refused, choosing instead to have the Justice Department investigate the matter.

Senate Republicans, already frustrated by Reno’s refusal, grew even more perplexed when she appointed an independent counsel to investigate allegations of influence peddling against Labor Secretary Alexis Herman. At the time, the Justice Department said it could not determine if the charges against Herman were credible and that there was strong evidence she had not done anything wrong. The fact that Reno recommended an independent counsel anyway suggested to Senate Republicans that Reno was applying a double standard when it came to the president and the campaign finance issue.

Their suspicions grew when LaBella, the leader of the Justice Department’s campaign-finance probe, announced he would retire later this summer. Convinced that Reno’s investigation was crumbling, Hatch summoned the attorney general before his committee last Wednesday to try to convince her that only an outsider could effectively trace any White House involvement.

It was a bruising appearance for Reno, with Thompson quoting from a confidential memo by FBI Director Louis Freeh that refuted the reasons she had cited for declining to recommend an independent counsel. Specter accused her of a double standard. Hatch read a hostile editorial from the New York Times that warned that Reno’s legacy would be “the preservation of a cover-up.”

But Reno, as is her style, was unmoved. “I don’t do things based on editorials,” she said. “I do things based on the law.”

Describing himself and his colleagues as “disgusted” by Reno’s performance, Specter took the extraordinary and unprecedented step to begin preparations for the lawsuit that would compel Reno to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the campaign finance evidence. Specter’s lawsuit would petition the Federal District Court for a writ of mandamus, a common law remedy that is used to force government officials to carry out the duties they are required to perform under the law.

At the federal level, the writ of mandamus is typically used by plaintiffs to collect unpaid Social Security benefits or to redress other technical complaints. This would be the first time ever that a plaintiff invoked the law to challenge the independent counsel’s statute, which was passed in 1978.

Until now, Senate Republicans had considered less Draconian ways to change Reno’s mind. But since Reno’s appearance, Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are now actively considering Specter’s move, committee staffers say.

Even if Specter manages to gather the signatures of a majority of the committee’s nine Republican members — and that’s still an if — it will not be easy to convince a court to grant the compulsory writ.

“It’s very hard to get,” says Christopher Schroder, a law professor at Duke University. “The court has to be persuaded that there is absolutely no conceivable way that the official who is refusing to act could do so and still be behaving lawfully. It’s a very high burden of proof.”

Schroder says there are innumerable reasons why a prosecutor might decide not to indict someone, even if he or she had some evidence of a crime. “A judge won’t sit and listen to a petitioner who comes into court and says, ‘Look, if the U.S. attorney had only looked at this evidence in the right way, he would have seen that there is more than enough probable cause to indict.’ In other words, the court is not going to substitute its judgment for the judgment of the official unless it is overwhelmingly convinced that the decision is irrational or obviously contrary to law.”

A crucial piece of evidence in any suit that Republicans bring will be Freeh’s confidential memo, written in November 1997, a month before Reno’s earlier appearance before the Judiciary Committee. As described by Thompson, who was briefed on its contents, Freeh’s memo argues that the independent counsel’s statute was specifically created to avoid conflicts of interest — both real and apparent — when an attorney general investigates her superiors. Freeh also reminds Reno that this determination of a political conflict of interest requires her to appoint an independent counsel.

“Freeh’s arguments would be Exhibit A in Sen. Specter’s petition,” Schroder says.

But government lawyers familiar with the matter say Specter’s petition, if it materializes at all, has little chance of succeeding. To begin with, they say, it is arguable whether the independent counsel’s statute allows for any judicial review of an attorney general’s decision not to recommend an appointment. Within this context, the Freeh memo is irrelevant. “It’s her decision whether or not to recommend,” one said. “This is not a reviewable decision.”

If such review were permitted, several lawyers added, it could be challenged on the grounds that it violates the constitutional separation of powers.

“If review were taken away from the attorney general and put in someone else’s hands, you would have a real problem with the separation of powers because the power to execute the law is confined by the Constitution to the executive branch,” said one lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Government lawyers also could challenge the legislators’ legal standing to bring suit against Reno. Though the law says that a majority of members of the Judiciary Committee may request that the attorney general recommend an independent counsel, there is nothing in the law that says these legislators have standing to sue if a special prosecutor is not appointed, these lawyers say.

“To have standing, you have to show that you are personally injured by the action that you’re complaining of and that a favorable decision will redress that injury,” this attorney said. “Generally speaking, legislatures are not found to have that kind of injury.”

“I think Specter is grandstanding here,” he added. “Specter is a good enough lawyer to know that this is absurd.”

Senate Republicans dismiss such talk as wishful thinking. While no other members of the committee have yet signed on to Specter’s petition, “There have been some favorable discussions among the Republican members and we’re optimistic,” said Elliot, the senator’s spokesman.

“After last Wednesday’s appearance [by Reno], where well-reasoned attempts to get the attorney general to explain her unwillingness to read the law as it concerns the appointment of an independent counsel were unsuccessful, the likelihood of other members’ joining in this unusual move by Sen. Specter has increased,” he said.

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>