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Reno calls for probe of Labor secretary

By Ann Scales, Globe Staff, 05/12/98

Alexis Herman
- from the
Department of Labor

ASHINGTON - Attorney General Janet Reno called yesterday for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate alleged influence-peddling by Labor Secretary Alexis Herman during her time as a White House aide, making her the seventh official and fifth Cabinet member in President Clinton's administration to face such scrutiny.

Reno, calling the case rife with ambiguities, went right up to the statutory deadline before asking a special three-judge panel to appoint an outside prosecutor to determine whether Herman illegally accepted $4,500 in kickbacks in return for using her influence on behalf of a company owned by a close friend.

Herman, who worked at the White House during Clinton's first term, has also faced allegations that she helped illegally solicit more than $250,000 in campaign contributions.

Herman has denied the allegations, and said yesterday she was ''extremely baffled'' by the Justice Department's action. ''These allegations have been false from the very beginning,'' she said.

President Clinton, in a statement, expressed confidence that she will be cleared and called it ''unfortunate'' that an independent counsel was called for.

''She is a person of integrity,'' the president said. ''I look forward to the speedy resolution of this investigation. I am confident that in the end, investigators will also conclude that Ms. Herman did nothing wrong.''

Justice Deparment officials say the decision to proceed against Herman was more difficult than in some of the other special counsel decisions. Reno's decision followed an unusually lengthy preliminary investigation, which included a two-month extension beyond the normal 90-days and ended with a clash of opinions over whether the evidence met the legal threshold of being specific and credible enough to warrant a special prosecutor.

At issue is whether Herman concealed a financial interest in a friend's business while she was head of the White House Office of Public Liaison from 1994 to 1996.

Her chief accuser is Laurent J. Yene, a businessman from Cameroon, who was co-owner of a consulting business with Herman's close friend, Vanessa Weaver. The business was called International Investments and Business Development.

Yene alleged that while Herman was a White House aide she had an agreement to get 10 percent of any business she helped Yene and Weaver's company obtain. He said he had delivered an envelope of cash to Herman's home in the spring of 1996.

Yene also claimed that Herman directed him to seek campaign contributions to the Democratic National Committee from the firm's clients, at least one of whom was a foreign national, in return for the favorable resolution of their business pending before the government.

Reno, in her filing to the judges' panel, said that a financial analysis of numerous bank accounts ''uncovered financial transactions potentially corroborative of Yene's allegations'' and that further investigation was needed.

For example, Yene alleged that Herman encouraged Weaver to solicit $250,000 in campaign contributions to the Democratic National Committee from a foreign businessman. The donations were allegedly funneled through Weaver's primary business, Alignment Strategies Inc., and were made with an eye to obtaining a federal satellite telephone license and a chance to meet with the president.

The same foreign businessman is also suspected of being behind another large donation. He attended a Democratic ''unity event'' fund-raiser at which the Weavers contributed $50,000 to the DNC. Shortly before the event, Alignment Strategies received a payment of $50,000 on his behalf.

In the end, for Reno, the case hinged on whether Yene was a credible accuser.

Reno said investigators spent numerous hours exploring his story. ''Although our investigation has developed no evidence clearly demonstrating Secretary Herman's involvement in these matters, and substantial evidence suggesting that she may not have been involved, a great deal of Yene's story has been corroborated; we thus are unable to conclude that he is not credible,'' Reno wrote.

Herman, who succeeded Brandeis University economist Robert Reich as labor secretary, becomes the fifth Clinton Cabinet member to be investigated by an independent counsel. She joins a list that includes former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, the late Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Of the five Cabinet members, four are minorities, a fact that has caused ripples of concern in some quarters that minorities are being held to a higher standard than other government officials.

Former Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell said it was odd and disturbing that an independent counsel was appointed for Herman and Cisneros, who was accused of lying to the FBI about how much he paid a mistress, but not for fund-raising calls made from the White House by the president and vice president.

Harvard Law professor Philip B. Heymann called it unbelievable that racial animus played any part in Reno's actions, but he agreed with Bell that many of the allegations are not worthy of a special prosecutor.

''This has become a mess,'' Heymann said. ''The independent counsel ought to say on a lot of these matters: `Look, this is too small potatoes for a federal prosecutor.'''

Michael Johnston, a political science professor at Colgate University, said the investigations could scare off anybody who ''has lived any kind of life.''

''Any administration would want to recruit the most able people it can and in particular people not out of the white male Ivy League mold,'' Johnston said. ''If this is how their life is going to be disrupted, they might want to stay out of public service, and I can't blame them for wanting to do so.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 05/12/98.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.

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