Attorney General Janet Reno's decision to follow the letter--rather than the spirit--of the law and not name an independent counsel to investigate allegations of corrupt fundraising activities by Democratic Party operatives pretty much ensures she'll keep her job. Properly, Miss Reno has named four such counsels to look into alleged wrongdoing by Bill Clinton in the Whitewater affair, former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, departing Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown (a probe that dissolved when he was killed in a plane crash). Yet her choice not to name one to look into possible illegal campaign contributions--$1.5 million of which has already been "returned"--was called a "fumble" by The New York Times editorial page.
A Washington Post editorial correctly stated: "The fundamental question with regard to these contributions is, what was given in return?" It appears Congress will attempt to find the answer, giving the administration's allies opportunities to drag the feet of justice.
The Clinton game plan has been clear for some time. It is a two-track defense: The first is to stonewall, releasing documents under subpoena at the last minute to avoid being cited for contempt of Congress or violating court orders. Track two is to delay, delay, delay in hopes that the public will lose interest, or that the administration's second term will expire before any guilt may be found. In basketball, it's called freezing. When you are faced with a superior team, you get ahead in points and then hold on to the ball without taking a shot, letting time expire. Investigators need the legal equivalent of the 24-second clock to keep things moving.
If the administration has nothing to hide, it should welcome a complete investigation of all its activities, from Whitewater to John Huang. But, of course, its foot-dragging actions demonstrate it has much to hide--far more than anything Richard Nixon covered up. Mr. Nixon's misdeeds were largely those of his own doing, with a little help from a few friends. The alleged infractions of the current administration appear to be widespread--geographically, legally, and morally--from Little Rock to Washington and from low-level officials right up through the political food chain at least to the First Lady, if not the president himself.
Telling the truth is the best defense against false accusations and questions about one's veracity. The stockpile of alleged wrongdoing is getting so high America Online has produced a Web page so visitors can keep up. Called "Clinton's Troubles," the page begins, "President Clinton may be looking forward to a new administration, but he will continue to be dogged by several controversies." Subscribers are urged to "Visit 'Clinton's Troubles' every day to keep updated on the latest news, about campaign finance reform, the Whitewater investigation and Paula Jones's sexual harassment allegations. The 'More Links and Interact' collection offers several online articles and Web links (connections to other sites), including court documents. If there are new controversies, we will add them."
One can bet there will be. Watch that Web space.
Miss Reno said if she found "specific and credible" information that a more senior official had "committed an offense" she would name an independent counsel. That means the new Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department will look into the matter, but it has barely started gathering resources. More delay.
Congress will conduct new hearings on all of this and more. Meanwhile, the Washington rumor mill whispers about indictments coming down from Kenneth Starr and a grand jury after the inauguration. All of this means the Clinton freeze will continue and the response will not be the truth but campaigns like the one promised by James Carville to assassinate Mr. Starr's character. But this isn't, and shouldn't be, about Mr. Starr. It is about all of the president's henchmen (and women).
So far, Mr. Clinton hasn't provided straightforward answers to legitimate questions. It is why, though he was reelected, polls show most of us still don't trust him.
copyright 1996, Los Angeles Times Syndicate