Reno puts off counsel decision

WASHINGTON - Attorney General Janet Reno left Tuesday for a business trip to Mexico without deciding whether to seek appointment of an independent counsel to investigate telephone fund raising by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Reno also put off deciding whether to seek a counsel for allegations former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary solicited a charitable contribution in return for meeting Chinese businessmen, said senior officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In all these cases, Reno's campaign finance task force has recommended against asking a special court to name an independent counsel.

Senior aides said the decision was taking time not because of any new development or reversal in thinking but merely as a result of Reno's usual desire to closely examine a lengthy legal document explaining the proposed decisions.

Reno has until Dec. 2 to decide. Aides said that, although it was possible for her to reach a decision while out of town, her schedule was likely to push the decision into next week.

Reno and deputy assistant attorney general Mary Lee Warren left for meetings with counterparts from around the Western Hemisphere. They intend to argue for Reno's view that other countries should begin extraditing their own citizens, particularly those wanted in drug trafficking cases. Many countries will only extradite citizens of other nations.

Reno was scheduled to fly from Mexico to her native Florida on Thursday for the Thanksgiving holiday and not return to Washington until late in the weekend.

Republicans have been pressing Reno for months to appoint an independent counsel. They were sure to criticize her if she followed her aides' advice, but even leading Republicans have predicted no one will be prosecuted for soliciting contributions by telephone.

Meantime, Justice officials were furious over reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times quoting unnamed government officials complaining that FBI Director Louis J. Freeh has not been consulted.

Since September, Freeh has joined Reno in her weekly meetings with the task force, and has sent a deputy when he was traveling, Justice officials said.

The direction of the investigation is reviewed in these meetings, so task force recommendations come as no surprise to Reno and should not surprise Freeh either, these officials said.

Freeh declined to discuss the matter Monday, but an official familiar with his thinking said Freeh was content to let Reno's decision-making process run its course and, if he were upset at the conclusion, make that fact public.

Last month, Reno told the House Judiciary Committee no investigative avenue in the investigation would be closed without Freeh's signoff, as well as hers.

That effectively gave Freeh a veto over the course of the probe, because the independent counsel law requires Reno to request a special prosecutor if at the end of a preliminary inquiry she cannot resolve whether there is enough evidence to support a prosecution.

Even if Reno rejects a special prosecutor for telephone solicitation, she is engaged in a separate 30-day inquiry into whether one should be named to investigate what role Clinton played, if any, in the Interior Department's rejection of an Indian casino. The casino was opposed by other tribes, which donated to the Democratic Party.

Among the reasons Justice aides cited for rejecting a counsel over the Clinton and Gore telephone calls was that the independent counsel law requires Reno to follow Justice Department precedents.

The 114-year-old statute barring solicitation of campaign contributions in federal offices was designed to stop shakedowns of lower level federal employees at work and has never been used to prosecute federal officials who telephoned private citizens at their homes or offices for donations.

By The Associated Press

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