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Special Counsel--Not Quite Yet : Justice Dept. should do its job and probe Whitewater thoroughly

January 06, 1994

What the political system needs, what the American people deserve and what the integrity of the presidency requires in the so-called Whitewater case is simply this: a spotless, above-reproach probe. The point is to get to the bottom of the allegations, which President and Mrs. Clinton insist are baseless, and, if possible, move on.

But to drag one's feet, as some in the White House have appeared to do, or to overly politicize the issue, as some who are insisting on a special prosecutor are doing, are both recipes for creating another crippled presidency.

The allegations are that Clinton once used his influence as Arkansas' governor to help a friend and co-investor who was in regulatory hot water over his savings and loan, which eventually went belly up. The allegations concerned events that occurred in the mid-1980s. These events were tied to the Clinton presidency following the suicide last spring of White House adviser Vincent Foster. After Foster's death, White House aides removed files from his office concerning the Whitewater matter. Those files are yet to be made available to designated Justice Department prosecutors. The White House promised Wednesday that it will comply with a grand jury subpoena demanding the documents by Jan. 18.

That's exactly what must happen, for further delay will give the calls for a special prosecutor a life of their own. In fact, a probe of the sort led by special prosecutors in earlier cases is not an option, at least unless and until the House passes a Senate bill approved in November that would restore authority for a panel of judge to select a special prosecutor in any case that requires one.

Until that is done, however, all that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno can do other than what she has done--order a department probe and promise that it won't be a joke--is to name some lawyers not working for the Justice Department to head up an investigation outside the department's walls. But would that necessarily prove superior to a departmental probe? We think not, and in fact there is a good chance that delay outside the department would be worse than any delay within it. Inside the department, Reno's feet no less than Clinton's will be held to the fire.

It would be a mistake to let Reno off the hook. Let the outspoken and apparently independent-minded attorney general do her job and have the Justice Department, whose taxpayer-supported budget runs into the billions, demonstrate that it is apolitical by delivering findings that are incontrovertible. And that must proceed without further delay not only because with each day the White House's apparent foot-dragging looks suspicious; there is also a technical reason. These allegations are so old that, though prosecutors have some time left to pursue criminal leads, the statutory clock on some of the possible charges winds down as early as March 2.

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