WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, seeking to assure doubting Republican critics, pledged on Wednesday not to close any matter in her office's multifaceted campaign fund-raising inquiry unless she and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh approve.
Despite the unusual commitment of joint personal involvement in the nitty-gritty of a still expanding investigation, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee repeatedly blistered her at a daylong hearing for failing to avoid a conflict of interest by seeking appointment of an outside prosecutor.
"I find her belief that she has no conflict of interest frankly astounding," Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), committee chairman, said in setting the tone with his opening statement. "I'm not alone in believing her situation fairly bristles with conflicts of interest."
Reno, noting that she has sought independent counsels to investigate several Clinton administration figures, said that she did so despite unnamed people warning: " 'That's dangerous for you. You might lose your job.'
"I knew I wouldn't lose my job for doing what I thought was right," she told the committee. "But I knew that I was going to do what I thought was right based on the evidence and the law."
Reno's promise to follow the same approach in the current inquiry, which includes preliminary investigations of whether campaign fund-raising calls by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore call for an outside prosecutor, failed to mollify Republican critics.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), for example, questioned her about a fund-raising videotape released Tuesday night by the White House that shows Clinton praising John Huang, a former Democratic National Committee official who is a central figure in the fund-raising scandal.
"I think that this is new and credible evidence that the president at least had knowledge of Mr. Huang's activities," Sensenbrenner contended.
"There is nothing in the statement that you provided to me just now that indicated that the president had any knowledge of any criminal activity," Reno countered. "And to suggest that is to engage in the rumor and innuendo that we try to avoid in the Department of Justice to make sure that the power of the federal government is not directed toward people in an unwarranted manner."
Sensenbrenner snapped: "Madame attorney general, that's the kind of thing that is destroying your credibility. For the Justice Department and its leader to say that the president didn't do anything wrong by pouring effusive praise on Mr. Huang, who I think is proven to have done something wrong because the DNC returned over $1.5 million [of contributions he raised] to donors . . . really destroys your credibility.
"That alone ought to be enough for you to wash your hands of the affair and to appoint an independent counsel," Sensenbrenner said.
But Reno, as she did throughout the hearing, stood her ground, responding calmly but firmly: "If you have specific and credible information that the president of the United States, or anyone else covered by the [independent counsel] statute, may have violated federal law, then let me pursue that. But I can't pursue it based on just the statement that you have provided. If you have additional information from that tape, of which I am not aware, then let me know."
Reno's pledge that both she and Freeh would sign off before closing any matter in the investigation marks an uncharacteristic degree of high-level involvement in processes that are typically left to veteran Justice Department attorneys.
With the FBI an investigative arm of the Justice Department, Freeh reports to Reno. But she has come to rely on his judgment in investigative matters and often consults with him before making decisions, department officials said.
Hyde joined in the assertion that the American people have lost confidence in the Justice Department because of the fund-raising investigation, citing an opinion poll that 73% of Americans believe an independent counsel should be appointed.
"I don't think you want polls involved in the construction of the law of this country," Reno said, "and I don't think the American people want polls involved. Otherwise, you would have written a statute that said, 'When 51% of the American people think there should be an independent counsel, we'll have one.' "
Democratic committee members, for their part, questioned Reno on a wide variety of other matters, ranging from civil rights to environmental law enforcement, noting that the purpose of the hearing was oversight of all the department's activities.
Some, however, attempted to belittle Republican allegations.