Commentary: Memo To Janet Reno: Quit Dodging Donorgate

Three times, Attorney General Janet Reno has weighed a request to name an independent counsel to investigate the Demo-crats' foreign fund-raising follies. Each time, most recently on Nov. 29, she has declined. Like everyone in Washington, the nation's top law-enforcer now appears to have chosen sides. But this case cries out for an investigator beyond White House control. Reno should reconsider.

It's not just that her timing is bad. Reno's nay comes as she awaits word on her future at the Justice Dept. and amid a White House whisper campaign that says President Clinton is annoyed because she has named four independent counsels on other matters.

But her decision, which gives the appearance that she's campaigning to keep her job, is faulty for graver reasons. Reno argues that there's no compelling reason to name an independent counsel. She rightly points out that John Huang, the former Lippo Group executive and Commerce Dept. official at the heart of the controversy, never held positions lofty enough to be covered by the independent counsel statute. But she wrongly says that there is no credible allegation of misconduct by those the law does cover--the President, Vice-President, and top election officials.

Granted, there's no proof to date of direct Presidential involvement. And a Justice Dept. task force is conducting its own inquiry. But only an independent counsel would have the authority to demand that Clinton and his aides turn over the information needed to settle a key question: Did Lippo, a $12 billion financial and real estate empire based in Indonesia, get something for its $1.1 million in contributions? Justice employees, after all, work for the President and can't be expected to subpoena his records.

There's plenty for an independent investigator to examine, especially the President's frequent contacts with Huang and James T. Riady, the son of Lippo's founder. Riady was cleared into the White House 25 times, meeting with the President 6 times. Huang was granted access 138 times, and on 15 occasions he met with Clinton. On average, one or the other visited the White House once a week.

Sure, corporate executives meet with the President every week. But Riady and Huang had extraordinary access, even in times of crisis. One visit took place on Apr. 19, 1993--the day of the inferno in Waco.

While Reno took the heat, Clinton was posing for photos with Riady and Huang in the oval office. At times, Huang and Riady made the White House their home-away-from-home. They were present on five consecutive days, June 21-25, 1994. A month later, Huang became a Deputy Assistant Commerce Secretary handling trade and other policy matters with Taiwan, China, Vietnam, and other emerging markets. Six weeks later, Lippo's partner on a $1 billion Chinese power plant, Entergy Corp., won a coveted seat on a China trade mission led by Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown.

The White House appears to be withholding information, a situation an independent counsel could resolve by subpoena. A printout of Huang's Commerce Dept. phone records, for example, was dated Oct. 23--two weeks before the election. But the records weren't handed over to the Hill until Nov. 15. Only last week did the White House reveal the existence of letters to Clinton from Mochtar Riady, James's father. In one dated Mar. 9, 1993, he urged Clinton to grant recognition to Vietnam, a move that stood to benefit Lippo.

TWO VIEWS. At other times, it appears the White House has deliberately tried to mislead. Bruce R. Lindsey, deputy counsel to the President, told White House lawyers handling questions on Lippo that James Riady's meetings with Clinton were strictly social. But the White House has since said that the two discussed Indonesia policy and trade with China.

At worst, the Clintonites see Donorgate as an example of fund-raising fever--a bipartisan disease. And they view Huang as an overeager newcomer who made mistakes. They say the lesson here is that Washington needs campaign-finance reform.

The GOP sees something far more sinister. Republicans think the White House sought campaign funds from Asians and bent policies to satisfy Asian business interests. Access to the Oval Office was the quid pro quo. With the White House acting like it has something to hide, it will take an independent counsel to sort out which view comes closer to the truth.

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