By Roberto Suro
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 1, 1998
Attorney General Janet Reno yesterday delayed
a decision on whether an independent counsel should investigate
allegations that a top aide to President Clinton committed perjury
during a Senate campaign finance probe.
The Justice Department spent three months
on a preliminary investigation of Harold M. Ickes, a former deputy
White House chief of staff, but top officials were split over
whether to proceed with an independent counsel. At midday yesterday
officials said Reno appeared to be leaning in favor of asking
for appointment of an independent counsel, but the attorney general
then decided to hold off and ask for more time to decide.
The allegation against Ickes was raised last
March by the Republican majority of the Senate Governmental Affairs
Committee, which accused the veteran political operative of giving
"less than candid" testimony about the Clinton administration's
dealings with the Teamsters union.
Reno, as she has in other independent counsel
decisions, did not start her final deliberations on the Ickes
question until hours before a deadline set by law. Although she
has often made her own call in the face of divided advice from
top aides, officials said Reno balked yesterday because she was
not comfortable with the choices before her -- either launch an
independent counsel inquiry or shut down the investigation.
In a court document that remains under seal,
Reno asked the special panel of three federal judges that oversees
the independent counsel process for a 60-day extension. In granting
the request, the judges, in a public document, said Reno had "shown
good cause for the requested extension" but did not disclose
Justice Department officials said Reno asked
for further analysis of evidence that has already been gathered
and some of her top aides agreed with her.
In addition to materials from the Senate
probe and its own investigation, the Justice Department is considering
evidence recently gathered in an ongoing investigation of the
International Brotherhood of Teamsters by the House Education
and the Workforce oversight and investigations subcommittee.
Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who is among several
Republican leaders to consistently reproach Reno for not seeking
an independent counsel on campaign finance matters, said in a
statement yesterday that "every time we reach a new plateau,
Attorney General Reno delays and delays and delays."
The Ickes inquiry is one of three independent
counsel decisions that have preoccupied Reno this autumn. Last
week, she also faced contradictory advice from top aides but decided
at the last minute against seeking further investigation of whether
Vice President Gore made false statements about campaign finance
practices. Next week, she faces a deadline in a preliminary investigation
of President Clinton's use of Democratic Party funds for television
advertising in the 1996 campaign.
Attorneys for Ickes, now a Washington attorney
and business consultant, have said that he has been called upon
to testify some 20 times as a result of his White House service
from 1994 to 1997 and that he has told the truth on every occasion.
The only allegation under consideration by
Reno is whether Ickes lied to Senate investigators when he said
he had no knowledge of anything done by the Clinton administration
regarding a labor dispute between the Teamsters and Diamond Walnut
Growers Inc., a cooperative of nut growers in California. The
Teamsters had been on strike for nearly four years and were looking
for a resolution in 1995 when Ickes sought the union's financial
support for Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign.
According to an internal Teamsters memorandum
acquired by Senate investigators, Ickes told union officials that
he had contacted then-U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor
and asked him to call a Diamond Walnut executive and press for
a resolution in favor of the Teamsters. An aide to Ickes confirmed
to Senate investigators that Ickes had called Kantor about Diamond
In the testimony at issue, Ickes was asked
by Senate investigators during a deposition on Sept. 22, 1997,
"What did the administration do regarding the Diamond Walnut
Ickes replied, "Nothing that I know
Although the question was asked twice in
different ways, the Senate investigators did not further explore
the matter with Ickes, nor did they develop conclusive evidence
that Kantor had reported back to Ickes that he had taken any action
on behalf of the Teamsters.
Ickes's apparent denial of facts that should
have been well known to him convinced some senior Justice Department
officials that he should be investigated for perjury by an independent
counsel. Other officials argued that the questioning of Ickes
was so weak that no investigation is justified.
In testimony in October to the House panel
investigating the Teamsters, Kantor said that although Ickes asked
him to call Diamond Walnut's president, it was not as part of
an effort to assist the union. Instead, Kantor said, he merely
called to inquire about the status of the labor dispute.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who heads
the House investigation of the Teamsters, said there is evidence
that Kantor pressured the growers on the Teamsters' behalf. "The
information we developed strongly suggests that the attorney general
must appoint an independent counsel," Hoekstra said in a
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company