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Reno holds true to form

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Is anyone surprised by Janet Reno's decision, once again, to ignore both evidence and the advice of respected advisers and reject the idea of investigating Al Gore's alleged fund-raising improprieties? All along, she has given no indication she would do otherwise. This is the third time she has rejected a full and impartial probe, carrying on what seems to be a determined effort to protect the vice president at all costs.

To be fair, now is not the time to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Gore. To do so during the middle of a hotly contested presidential race would cast an unfair pall over the Democratic ticket, regardless of what the investigation eventually concluded. No, the time for a probe was long ago, and Reno has had plenty of chances to launch one.

At issue is whether Gore violated the law by raising political funds from telephones within the White House, whether he subsequently lied to investigators about what he thought the money was for, and whether he lied when he said he misunderstood that a meeting at a Buddhist temple really was a fund-raiser.

At first, Reno limited her own investigation into these matters to the narrow question of whether Gore violated a 19th century law. Then she focused only on whether he had lied to investigators during initial questioning.

It would be easy to cast all of this in purely political terms, but the pressure to appoint a prosecutor is not coming solely from the GOP. The head of the Justice Department's campaign finance unit, Robert J. Conrad Jr., has been urging Reno to make such an appointment. So did Charles LaBella, who held the same position in 1998 and left in disgust, and so did FBI Director Louis Freeh.

With the demise of the independent counsel law, Reno is the sole decision-maker when it comes to appointing an outside investigation into alleged wrong-doing by the executive branch. Her independent and professional execution of those duties is vital to the integrity of the attorney general's office. Unfortunately, it now appears Congress ought to begin considering a fair and impartial way to write a new independent council law — one absent the pitfalls of the older law, yet with the ability to keep the executive branch from acting as if it is above all rules.