By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 1998; Page A06
Attorney General Janet Reno is "seriously
considering" seeking the appointment of an independent counsel
to investigate former White House aide Harold M. Ickes, a move
she has resisted despite two years of calls for an outside probe
of alleged campaign finance abuses by the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection
effort, federal law enforcement sources said.
The sources said Reno is "as close as
she's ever been" to seeking a campaign finance outside counsel
as she weighs whether to recommend a probe into Ickes's activities
as the White House's point man for 1996 fund-raising. But they
emphasized that no final decision has been made.
In the past, Reno has refused to preempt
her department's own investigation of Democratic fund-raising
abuses, resisting intense pressure from congressional Republicans
as well as forceful recommendations by her top campaign finance
prosecutor and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh.
The sources also confirmed a report in yesterday's
Wall Street Journal that the Justice Department has reopened its
review of the legality of Vice President Gore's fund-raising calls
from the White House. But they said they did not expect that probe
to go too far, since Reno publicly rejected the appointment of
an independent counsel for those calls in December, describing
the allegations of wrongdoing as "insubstantial."
Ickes, a longtime loyalist of President Clinton
who served as his deputy chief of staff, was the White House's
key liaison with the Democratic National Committee in the 1996
Ickes and his attorneys did not return calls
yesterday, and Gore's office declined to comment.
Reno has always said she would seek an independent
counsel the moment she felt that she had seen "specific and
credible evidence" of a crime committed by an
official covered by the Independent Counsel Act. A confidential memorandum
to Reno last month by Charles G. LaBella, the outgoing head of
her campaign finance task force, has refocused her attention on
Ickes, the sources said. Ickes is not technically covered by the
act, but the sources said Reno is considering LaBella's suggestion
that she trigger it anyway because Ickes was so close to the president.
"It sounds like she's pretty close to
triggering the act," one source said. "And if she does,
that's a big deal. I don't see how you can limit the investigation
to Ickes alone, when there's all that money flowing in and flowing
out." Another source said Reno expects to make a decision
about how to proceed on the Ickes matter by late next week.
Ickes and Gore have both denied wrongdoing,
although the White House has acknowledged that Ickes improperly
used a government fax machine and telephone line for political
purposes. A few of Reno's advisers who opposed an independent
counsel have changed their positions, but sources cautioned that
the attorney general's decisions are notoriously difficult to
"She's as close as she's ever been,
but you don't necessarily want to read too much into that,"
one official said. "In a football game, you can be the closest you've
been to the end zone, but you still might be out at the 40-yard
line. Her options are still open."
Republicans who have investigated the 1996
campaign have portrayed Ickes as the chief Democratic operator,
chairing White House "money meetings," organizing
presidential coffees for major donors and orchestrating the reelection
strategy from the White House. A report by the Senate Governmental
Affairs Committee alleged that he "simply seized the reins
of financial power at the DNC. The DNC could not spend any money
without prior White House approval."
The sources said an outside probe of Ickes could include allegations of perjury as well as campaign finance abuses.
During a rambunctious appearance before the
Senate committee last year, Ickes vigorously denied that the
White House helped the Teamsters during a labor dispute with Diamond
Walnut Growers in California. But the committee later uncovered
internal Teamsters memos asserting that Ickes had urged then-U.S.
Trade Representative Mickey Kantor to intervene in the Diamond
Walnut dispute, and an Ickes aide confirmed to the panel that
her boss had asked her to make sure Kantor followed through.
Several officials said that, given the history
of independent counsels, even a narrow probe of a few specific
allegations about Ickes could become a wide-ranging investigation
of the 1996 election. Republicans who have clamored
for an outside probe believe this expansion would not only
be inevitable, but desirable.
"Harold Ickes was at the center of the
storm," said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who recently started contempt
proceedings against Reno because she refused to give
memos by Freeh and LaBella to his Government Reform and Oversight
Committee. "He oversaw the White House coffees; he oversaw
the soft-money ads. He coordinated the whole fund-raising operation.
No matter which part of the food chain you start going up, eventually
you always get to Harold Ickes."
But that does not necessarily mean an independent
counsel. In the past, Reno has argued that "soft
money" donations are not covered by federal election laws, and her
campaign finance task force has yet to indict anyone on the receiving
end of Democratic donations.
The allegations about Gore's fund-raising
calls to 45 Democratic donors from the White House seem even less
likely to result in the appointment of an independent counsel,
the sources said. In December, Reno said she
had found "clear and convincing evidence" that Gore did not
solicit any hard-money donations. Sources said new evidence has
forced the department to reopen its inquiry into the calls, but
one official still described it as "no big deal."
Reno said last year her department has had
a "clear, longstanding policy" not to prosecute officials
for solicitation from a federal building without evidence of "aggravating
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed
to this report.
Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company