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Reno can save face by naming special counsel to clear up mess

SHARE Reno can save face by naming special counsel to clear up mess

There are so many subscandals coming out of the Democrats' campaign-finance scandal that it is hard to keep track without a scorecard. Here's a score-card.

1. The Indian casino. The one that looks like the most trouble right now. Back in 1994, one group of Wisconsin tribes was lobbying to set up a casino on its land. A group of neighboring tribes lobbied against. Both the local and national Bureau of Indian Affairs recommended in favor of Group A but were overruled by Interior Department superiors in Washington, who ruled for Group B. Group B is the one that gave $300,000 to the Democratic Party.Worse, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has had to change his story about what happened. There is evidence that the ruling for Group B followed White House pressure.

2. The Teamsters. Another contender for serious trouble is the Democrats-Teamsters money swap: In 1996, the DNC allegedly steered Democratic donors to the Carey-for-president Teamster campaign to get around the union's campaign restrictions, and the Teamsters gave to the Democrats to get around federal campaign restrictions. This one has already brought three guilty pleas in a New York court.

3. Federal spending limits. Things get murkier. Sen. Fred Thompson has pushed very hard the fact that Clinton and his aides conspired to subvert campaign spending limits by using "soft money." The problem for Thompson is that the Republicans did the same, though on a smaller scale. Unless you are prepared to prosecute Bob Dole, it is hard to make the case for prosecuting Clinton.

4. Foreign money. It is clear that the Democrats collected at least $3 million in illegal foreign money. And it was clearly done by people close to Clinton. Charlie Trie, restaurateur extraordinaire and Clinton chum, is now a fugitive in Asia. Johnny Chung and John Huang, more close fund-raising pals, are now taking the Fifth. What did the president know and when did he know it?

All this - and yet Janet Reno has refused to call for an independent counsel. (She is considering one regarding the most trivial of all the charges: Clinton's and Gore's illegal White House fund-raising phone calls.) Invoking the narrowest possible interpretation of the law, Reno is playing Horatius at the bridge.

Yet the Justice Department clearly has a conflict of interest investigating its boss, the president. That in itself should trigger an independent counsel. But Reno is so convinced of her own rectitude that she thinks the clause doesn't apply to her. Well, what about the army of ambitious aides working under her? Are they, too, all as chaste as Caesar's wife?

And apart from the question of conflict, there is the question of competence. Justice's hapless investigators have discovered this scandal's most sensational revelations by reading their morning newspaper.

And so the hearings, the calls for a counsel, the resistance to a counsel, the whole sordid affair goes on indefinitely. Whatever partisan satisfaction Republicans may draw from this spectacle should long ago have been overtaken by concern about what it is doing to the public's faith in both the electoral and judicial processes.

What to do? Up to now the options have been presented as more of the same, or an independent counsel.

There is a third option: a special counsel appointed not under the independent counsel law, not by a three-judge panel, but by the attorney general herself. There is ample precedent - from Griffin Bell appointing Paul Curran (to investigate the Carter peanut warehouse) in 1979 to Reno herself appointing Robert Fiske to investigate Whitewater. (His investigation was later supplanted by a judicially mandated independent counsel.)

Reno would no longer be vexed by the narrow question of whether the independent counsel law is triggered by this or that infraction. Clearly there was a pattern of impropriety and illegality in this campaign. The question is how far did it go and who directed it. Let a special counsel take over Justice's investigation and find out.

This idea saves face for everyone. It offers the credibility that Republicans demand and the fairness that Democrats do.

The prosecutor would have to be someone respected and independent. One candidate would be Warren Rudman, former senator, Iran-contra committee vice chairman, straight arrow. Another might be Griffin Bell himself, Jimmy Carter's attorney general.

There are obviously other possibilities. But the sooner Reno stops splitting hairs as a way to deny an independent investigation, the better for the country.

Turn the case over to a respected, trustworthy outsider. You do not trigger the independent counsel law. You do not give up ultimate authority over the investigation. But you move this scandal toward resolution. How about it, Reno?