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LaBella to Resign as Interim U.S. Attorney

Courts: San Diego prosecutor had role in Clinton fund-raising probe. He says Reno planned to replace him.

February 03, 1999|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Charles LaBella, the veteran federal prosecutor who headed the probe of alleged fund-raising irregularities in President Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign and whose call for a special prosecutor was rebuffed by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, said Tuesday that he is resigning because he feels he has lost the confidence of Reno and her top deputy.

LaBella said the final straw was when Reno and Eric Holder told him they were planning to ask the federal court to replace him as interim U.S. attorney with prosecutor Gregory Vega when Vega's name is forwarded by the White House to the Senate for confirmation to the permanent post.

"Obviously I did not have the confidence of the attorney general and the deputy attorney general and so I think it's time to move on," said LaBella, 47, a 16-year veteran of U.S. attorney offices in New York and San Diego.

LaBella was named by Reno to be interim U.S. attorney after Alan Bersin resigned last spring to become San Diego schools superintendent. Labella had been Bersin's top assistant at the time.

But in August, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) nominated Vega instead of LaBella for the permanent post as the top federal prosecutor in San Diego and Imperial counties.

The nomination was made amid much political speculation that LaBella had angered Boxer, a passionate supporter of Clinton's, with his tough approach in the fund-raising investigation. Boxer denied any such motive, noting that Vega, 44, a 15-year veteran of the U.S. attorney's office, was highly rated by a nonpartisan screening committee--as was LaBella.

Nearly six months later, the White House has yet to submit Vega's name to the Senate for nomination. Some political insiders believe the Clinton administration is afraid that Republicans will use the Vega hearing to revisit allegations that LaBella was denied the job because of his aggressiveness in the fund-raising investigation.

In an interview Tuesday, LaBella said he was disappointed that Reno turned down his request for a special prosecutor "but it's her decision to make. There have been a series of factors in determining that it is time for me to leave."

Myron Marlin, spokesman for the Department of Justice, declined to comment on whether Reno had planned to ask the court to switch Vega for LaBella. But he added: "We have not lost confidence in Chuck LaBella. He has been a fine interim U.S. attorney."

LaBella, a workaholic New Yorker educated at Fordham Law School, said he plans to remain in San Diego, although his plans are unclear. It is also unclear exactly when he will depart the office.

Vega, asked for comment on LaBella's decision, said simply, "I wish him all the best." He declined to say whether he would have preferred that LaBella remain.

Reno asked LaBella in September 1997 to assume control of the Department of Justice review of the fund-raising done by the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996. Naming LaBella was meant as a signal to the public that Reno wanted to kick-start an investigation that had been criticized as sluggish.

Federal law requires that there be a U.S. attorney in every region of the country. When a vacancy occurs, the attorney general must name an interim U.S. attorney. But that appointment can only stand for 120 days.

After that, the federal court in the region must reappoint that interim U.S. attorney or appoint its own replacement while the appointment process is underway in Washington. In October, the San Diego court named LaBella, allowing him to continue running the office while Vega's nomination was awaiting submittal to the Senate.

If Reno had followed through in asking San Diego federal judges to replace LaBella with Vega, it could have proved legally tricky. San Diego judges believe they may not have the legal authority to replace an interim U.S. attorney that they have already appointed with someone else.

After LaBella resigns, Reno will be free to name Vega as interim U.S. attorney.

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