10/16/97 - 01:29 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Reno gives FBI veto over probe

WASHINGTON - Assailed by House Republicans, Attorney General Janet Reno promised Wednesday not to close any avenue of her campaign finance investigation without the FBI director's agreement - an unprecedented safeguard. But GOP lawmakers insisted the investigation "bristles with conflicts of interest" and should be handed to a special prosecutor.

During an occasionally testy, daylong hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Reno repeatedly said she was barred by law from supplying details of what her investigators were doing. "If I could tell you what was being done, I think you would feel much more comfortable," she said.

Instead, she delivered for the first time an extraordinary assurance not required by the independent counsel law: She has given FBI Director Louis J. Freeh veto power over the course of the investigation. In the long history of the often-contentious relations between the FBI and the Justice Department, no previous attorney general has publicly shared authority so explicitly with an FBI director.

Pressed by Republican lawmakers about reports that her prosecutors had prevented FBI agents from interviewing top administration officials, she repeated three times that no allegation would be dismissed without the personal assent of Freeh, who has publicly criticized the Clinton White House more than once.

The promise did not deflect Republican demands for an independent counsel.

Chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois asserted Reno's effort "bristles with conflicts of interest" because she must examine her boss, President Clinton. Hyde said public opinion polls show "the average American wants an independent counsel."

Reno shot back, "I don't think you or the American people want polls" determining application of federal law. "They want someone doing the best single job they can."

She said she pays "no attention whatsoever to politics or pressure."

Reno acknowledged her task force suffered early tensions and fell behind in analyzing subpoenaed documents. But she insisted it is working to build a solid case by traditional bottom-up investigation.

She said she is prepared to seek an independent counsel if evidence emerges to warrant it, as she has done four times previously for senior Clinton administration officials. "And I have never gotten in trouble with the White House for anything I have done," she said, adding she was ready to return to Miami if fired.

Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., however, sharply questioned "the track record of the investigation." He noted that a newspaper beat Justice investigators to key evidence and that Reno recently replaced the task force chief.

"Can you tell us why the American people should believe you when you say you're going to pursue every lead?" McCollum asked.

"What we are committed to do is trying to pursue every lead ... and make sure that before those leads are closed out, Director Freeh and I have approved the closeout," Reno replied. "No door has been closed."

Later, Reno's spokesman Bert Brandenburg said her decision to share authority with Freeh was made last month when the task force leadership was changed, but Reno did not announce it until Wednesday.

McCollum asked whether prosecutors barred FBI agents from interviewing some top officials.

"There may have been a situation where someone said to them (FBI agents) it's better to build from the ground up and interview them down the road than interview them now," Reno acknowledged.

And she added "it was disturbing to me" to read first in The Washington Post about a questionable transfer of contributions between accounts.

"Some of the information had not been assimilated yet or put into the computer," Reno explained. "There were 500 grand jury subpoenas. So much information came in so suddenly. They thought they could keep up with it and they couldn't." She has since added more investigators.

"It is important that members of Congress don't second guess investigations," Reno added. " They don't understand all the information that is before us, all the transactions, the steps that have been taken."

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said newly revealed videotapes showing Clinton praising fund-raiser John Huang for his money-raising skills were "new and credible evidence" that the president was aware of the illegal practices Huang is alleged to have used.

Reno retorted that to make such a conclusion was "to engage in rumor and innuendo" because the president's statement in no way was proof he was aware of criminal activity.

Sensenbrenner shot back that failure to make that connection "destroys your credibility and the credibility of your department."

Later, after Democratic objections were voted down 14-4, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., played the White House videotape of Clinton praising Huang on Feb. 19, 1996. Barr said it showed "a larger picture ... a scheme to defraud." Reno would only say that "if there is a conspiracy we will follow it."

Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., asked whether Reno "as an appointee of the president" could negotiate his questioning by Justice investigators. She replied, "I don't see any reason why we can't make arrangements for him to testify."

Ranking Democrat John Conyers of Michigan said Republicans should apply their standards to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and ask for an investigation of his attempt to introduce a $50 billion tax break for the tobacco industry into the balanced budget deal. Tobacco companies make large donations to the Republican Party.

Conyers said that was no different from Republicans who said Clinton was accepting a bribe when he declared a southern Utah region off-limits to coal development. That was an act that could help the Riady conglomerate in Indonesia, a group that made contributions to Clinton's campaign and which has large coal reserves in Indonesia.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.