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Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing on 1996 Campaign Fund Raising

Aired June 27, 2000 - 2:18 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to Washington now. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the man from whom we heard about the third and latest recommendation to the attorney general to investigate Al Gore's 1996 fund-raising activities, is now addressing the committee and the attorney general. We're going to listen to what he has to say.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: ... and to correct the misstatement about judges on pending matters.

Judge Hatter (ph) was questioned about a closed matter and the only judge in issue, but on to the subject matter at hand, and I join in welcoming you here, Attorney General Reno, and the focus of what the subcommittee has been doing involves espionage cases, campaign finance and Waco.

With respect the issue of independent counsel, a good bit of our focus today will be about your decisions not to appoint independent counsel. And by way of setting the stage, with respect to your judgment not to have independent counsel as to the vice president, as to the distinction between hard money and soft money, and whether the vice president knew that he was soliciting hard money, the established record shows that four witnesses testified that hard money was discussed in the vice president's presence at the famous November 21st meeting; that one of the witnesses, Leon Panetta, even went so far as to point out that, quote, "The purpose of the meeting was to make sure they knew what the hell was going on." That included among those four witnesses was the vice president's chief of staff, David Strauss, who had a memorandum -- written memorandum putting in writing the fact that there was a discussion about 35 percent hard money.

Then there were the 13 memoranda from Harold Ickes, which went to the vice president marked "hard money," and the testimony of the vice president's assistant that they very carefully culled the in-box to leave out matters which the vice president wanted excluded but always left in the items with respect to what Mr. Ickes had sent. And then the vice president's only -- own statement that, quote, "The subject matter of the memorandums would have already been discussed" in his and the president's presence. The vice president further acknowledged that he, quote, "had been a candidate for 16 years and had a good understanding of the hard money." At this point, it is important to put in perspective that the independent counsel law, then in effect, did not call for a conclusion that the vice president had committed a crime, but only that there was specific and credible information -- not evidence, just information -- that there may, and I emphasize the word "may," have been a violation of the federal criminal laws.

And then there is the question of the coffees, 103 of them, some $26 million contributed, over $7 million within one month of the donor's attendance. When the vice president was questioned about this matter on April 18, questioned, quote, "in terms of a fund- raising tool, what was the purpose of the coffee?" Answer, "I don't know."

Further down page 53, "With respect to raising the $108 million, did you have discussions with anybody concerning the roles a coffee would play in raising that type of money?" Answer, "Well, let me define the term, 'raising,' if I could." Shades of what "is" is.

And on page 59, question, "You had indicated earlier that you may have attended one coffee. What were you talking about?" Answer, a little farther down, page 60, quote, "Although it was not my practice to go to any of these coffees, there may have been one," one, "that I attended briefly, perhaps because some of the invitees were known to me."

Then the attorney for the vice president submitted a letter on the subject two days later, pointing out that the vice president's schedule, he was designated to attend four White House coffees, and the vice president hosted approximately 21 coffees in the executive office building.

Very briefly, on the issue of the Buddhist temple, to put the matter in perspective. Shortly before the scheduled fund-raiser, the vice president's scheduler sent him an e-mail message, asking whether he would be interested in adding another stop on the April 29 itinerary, on top of the quote, "two fund-raisers in San Jose and LA." The vice president responded, "If we already have booked the fund- raisers, then we have to decline."

Again, Ickes' memos were specific to the president about a $250,000 take from a fund-raiser. And a second one, a $325,000 take from a fund-raiser.

It is in this context, Madam Vice President -- Madam Attorney General Reno, that we raise the question about the lower level of sufficiency to establish with specific and credible information the level for calling for independent counsel. Again, as I said last Thursday, in fairness to the vice president, it is a very different level of evidence than that required for a criminal prosecution or for an indictment.

One of the issues in sharp focus today will be why on the first four times the vice president was questioned, he was never asked about the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple. It was only when the subcommittee issued subpoenas and had the LaBella and Freeh memoranda with the return date of April 20 that the Department of Justice finally got around to questioning the vice president on April the 18th.

So those are a brief focus, in addition to the decision that you made not to appoint independent counsel with President Clinton and the vice president on the soft money coordination issue and advice of counsel.

And one final comment: The vice president's surrogates have raised an issue that my disclosure of what Mr. Conrad recommended was inappropriate. That disclosure was made in the course of the committee's business. But before making that disclosure, we called in Robert Conrad and asked him the questions head-on. And it was only when he failed to disclose them, did the disclosure come from the subcommittee. And that was done so that there could be public accountability.

There was a substantial period of time between the LaBella recommendation and the Freeh recommendation, the Freeh recommendation in November of 1997 and the LaBella recommendation in July of 1998, until we finally got the specifics on their memoranda on April the 20th in the year 2000.

And I do not take lightly the comments of the vice president's surrogates, accusing me of McCarthy-like tactics and being in cahoots with the Bush campaign. I have not and would not discuss this matter with the Bush campaign.

And as to the reference to McCarthy-like tactics, that is a matter which I will take up personally with the vice president to see if it was authorized. And if so, I will take it up with him in some substantial detail.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Thank you, Senator Specter.

We'll turn to Senator Torricelli. And then Senator Thurmond has to leave, so he said he has a very short statement and we'll grant him that...

(CROSSTALK)

SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI (D), NEW JERSEY: Thank you Mr. Chairman.

Madam Attorney General...

HATCH: Then we're going to go to the attorney general.

TORRICELLI: Good afternoon.

Madam Attorney General, I welcome you to the committee and thank you very much for your attendance today, hoping that at long last, through your testimony and the questions that we are about to ask, we can bring what has been a matter that has proceeded for literally years to some conclusion.

I think, Madam Attorney General, it would be fair to say, as I begin my own statement, that not only do I hold no brief for the attorney general, but indeed I have on occasions not hesitated to criticize judgments of the Justice Department when I found reason to disagree with them. Indeed, in the matter of Wen Ho Lee and the prosecution of Peter Lee, I've expressed my concerns, joined with the Republican majority in their investigations and never hesitated to reach a judgment on how I believe the matters should have been dealt differently.

But it is inconceivable to me that either the Justice Department generally or Janet Reno specifically could be criticized on questions with regard to either her independence, which raises issues of integrity, or her willingness to use the independent counsel statute. The facts simply do not support either.

Indeed, the only area of criticism open to those who are raising issues with regard to the independent counsel statue is that on occasion they simply don't agree with the final judgment.

No attorney general could be less vulnerable to attack on issues of independence. No attorney general could be less vulnerable to attack on issues of using the independent counsel statute or using outside counsel when otherwise generally necessary.

On seven different occasions, Janet Reno has appointed independent counsels to investigate the president of the United States, for whom I assume she has both affection and loyalty, and fellow members of the Cabinet.

Not simply more than any other attorney general in the history of the United States, but more than her predecessors combined, she has sat across a Cabinet table with colleagues and friends and appointed independent counsels I assume at some personal discomfort because it was the right thing to do and the facts justified it.

I do not even make this claim because I necessarily agree with all those instances in which she appointed an independent counsel. Indeed, I believe she has erred on the side of appointing them even when not always justifiable.

At enormous cost in human terms and to the taxpayers, we have witnessed independent counsel being named against former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, prosecuted for accepting sports tickets, after four years and $17 million of investigation, to hear 30 "not guilty" verdicts.

Housing Secretary Cisneros, charged with felonies, his relationships with a woman, pled guilty to a misdemeanor after a multi-million dollar investigation and paid a $10,000 fine.

The matter of Ken Starr, his judgment, his cost, his investigation, speaks for itself.

And yet, incredibly, incredulously, the attorney general of the United States now faces this Congress with the allegation that she has hesitated to appoint an independent counsel on another matter. Her independence, her integrity, her willingness to examine her own administration, being brought into question.

The issue now before the committee appears to be centered on the question of whether when confronted with appointing an independent counsel under the statute previously or now under internal Justice Department guidelines, there was unanimity on her judgment.

Indeed, wouldn't it have been extraordinary if upon soliciting advice from all of her assistants, in Public Integrity, the Criminal Division, her deputy, each of these people had reviewed all the facts, considered the law and reached the same judgment. If there is one thing that characterizes the difference between Janet Reno's judgment in dealing with independent counsel on the campaign-related issues with the vice president and the seven other instances involving the president and members of the Cabinet, it is the breadth of advice that she sought, not simply from all of her own senior advisers, but the director of the FBI and the leadership of the campaign finance task force.

Members react with extraordinary surprise that there was a difference of judgment. The surprise would have been if they were all of the same mind and all came to the same judgment, given the extensive number of people who were consulted, indeed the unprecedented number of people that were questioned.

Divergent views, of course, include those of FBI Director Louis Freeh and Mr. LaBella, the head of the campaign finance task force. Among those consulted as well, perhaps one of the most senior officials of the Justice Department, Mr. Radek, a professional of no particular partisan persuasion, 29 years with the Department of Justice, 20 of those years with the Public Integrity Section. Mr. Radek appeared before our committee. He concluded, and I quote, "There was no substantive basis to proceed under the clause of the statute."

He further shared with the committee not that it was his judgment or a majority of his staff or an overwhelming majority of his staff, but that it was the unanimous judgment of career prosecutors in the Public Integrity Section that there was no basis for using the mandatory provision to the independent counsel statute with regard to Vice President Gore.

He further added to the committee that had there been independent counsel and we proceeded under the mandatory provisions of the law there was no evidence upon which to build a case with regard to Vice President Gore.

During the course of the attorney general's review, a preliminary inquiry of the facts, it must be assumed by those who think that a misjudgment was made by the attorney general, that she did so without a complete review of the law or the facts as they apply to the vice president. The record is directly contrary. Two hundred and fifty witnesses were interviewed, including the vice president. Thousands of documents were obtained from the White House, the DNC, the Clinton- Gore campaign and a variety of individuals who received telephone calls from the vice president. It was on this basis that Mr. Radek and each and every one of the career prosecutors of the Justice Department advised the attorney general that she should not proceed and, if she proceeded, there was no case to be made. And yet today my colleagues will weigh Mr. Freeh and Mr. LaBella's advice versus the unanimous judgment of the professional prosecutors within the Justice Department, leaving the committee to conclude the attorney general reached the right judgment to agree with the unanimous judgment of the career prosecutors, or Mr. Freeh and Mr. LaBella's and, indeed, now Mr. Conrad's judgment, of equal or superior basis.

It is worth noting that Mr. Radek is the single individual in the Department of Justice with the greatest experience in the application of the independent counsel statute, the most experienced in law enforcement, the most experienced with the statute and the most experienced with campaign finance related issues. Indeed, his combined staff has a multiple of years of experience compared with Mr. LaBella, Mr. Conrad and Mr. Freeh on campaign related issues and issues relating to the statute.

And, indeed, Mr. Radek testified before our committee that he believed that this was persuasive, that his own staff had more experience specifically with the statute, and the other individuals involved had little to none in some cases.

Now the statute has expired. The attorney general has been left with the issue now of provisions that will were arrived upon within the Justice Department to deal with the expiration of the Independent Counsel Act. It is worth nothing that the attorney general was not required to write these procedures, to establish an independent counsel's provision within Justice, but she did so. It was the right thing to do and now she has followed those procedures.

The question now turns to the individual instances that are leading some to question the attorney general's judgment with regard to independent counsel. Before briefly examining the three instances, I want simply to note to my colleagues this is not the first time that I have been in this hearing room on these issues addressing these questions. As, indeed, three successive campaign finance task force heads have led inquiries, so, too, the Government Affairs Committee occupied months in thousands of hours of review of some of these same issues.

Indeed, over the course of three years, the House and Senate expended $11 million, questioned hundreds of people, only to have their own efforts duplicated by the Justice Department and the FBI itself. Same issues, same law, same facts, only to be assumed to the same equation.

It was not for lack of effort or desire or motivation that Mr. Thompson and the bipartisan members of this committee could find no substantive basis to find violations of the law by the president or the vice president. We came to the same position as Mr. Radek and professional prosecutors within the Justice Department.

Let me turn each, finally, of these three instances. First, the visit to the Buddhist temple. It is alleged that the vice president knew that he was attending a fund-raiser at a charitable nonprofit institution, the Buddhist temple, where violations of the law occurred. Our committee examined this issue. No doubt the Justice Department on these issues has done so again.

We found the following: No tickets were sold. No campaign materials were displayed. No campaign table was set up for information, solicitation or acceptance of money. The vice president made no mention of fund-raising in his speech, which spoke about religious tolerance and brotherhood.

The committee was further persuaded that the only paper the vice president actually received on that day in visiting the Buddhist temple was his schedule. His schedule makes no mention of a fund- raiser, solicitations of funds, people raising funds, commitment to the campaign or involvement in the campaign. The only paper before the vice president of the United States was instructions that he was to extend brief remarks from the podium and exit, take photos with 150 guests, pay homage in the shrine.

This is a fund-raiser? This is leading the vice president of the United States to solicit funds? $11 million dollars later, Mr. Chairman, this is what our committee found.

With respect to the White House coffees, it appears in the popular press that the campaign finance task force was intrigued by the notion that they asked the vice president about the numbers of coffees that were held. The vice president's answer relied upon a belief that the question was as to coffees held in the White House. The vice president, to the best of his knowledge, seemed to have answered that question both honestly and accurately. Upon reflection, there are some who are now arguing that it was not differentiated between coffees held in the Old Executive Office Building, of which there were a greater number, and those held at the White House.

This is the nature of a federal law enforcement inquiry? This is a serious allegation of perjury? Whether or not we were distinguishing between the appropriate buildings in the White House complex and the numbers of coffees. On what basis could it be argued that the vice president was attempting to mislead someone? The Justice Department knew how many coffees were held. The popular press, the American people and the Justice Department knew where they were held, the numbers that were held and who was in attendance. The facts were not material, they were not new and they misled no one, nor did the vice president clearly have the intention to do so.

Third, the solicitation of hard as opposed to soft money. The allegation centers largely on a single meeting in which 13 people were in attendance.

They've all been interviewed by committees of the Congress, by the Justice Department, and by the task force. There has been a great deal of attention paid to the fact that two people, two, remember a mention of hard money. On a later date, after reviewing documentation, a third raised the possibility. Thirteen people were there.

Apparently, if the president and the vice president of the United States do not remember a discussion of hard money, they have good company, because neither did 10 other people. The entire theory rests on the belief that the vice president of the United States reads every memorandum that reaches his desk, every word that is ever said at a meeting, and nothing is ever to be forgotten. But that somehow these two individuals have extraordinary credibility in their recall, but the other 10 do not, including the president and the vice president. And this is alleged to be an offense which would have warranted some time ago the appointment of an independent counsel.

Madam Attorney General, the best conclusion to be reached on how you have performed your responsibilities as attorney general, the integrity with which you have come to your position, the independence with which you have weighed your judgment, is that somehow through all these years, you have managed to have everybody disagree with you on something at some time in some way. Good for you. That's the way attorney generals should be.

I'm among those who have disagreed with you, but I cannot argue that you did not err on the side of independence, that you did not have the courage to look the president of the United States in the eye, Cabinet members, who I know you have great affection for, have served with over the years, and questioned them when they were wrong and stood up for what needed to be done.

It is, Mr. Chairman, though we will endure this hearing today, time to bring these long proceedings to a close. The New York Times editorial on Sunday may have actually put it in the best perspective. These issues now belong to the American people. Vice President Gore may have made some mistakes of judgment; I do not believe he made mistakes of law. I commend those questions now to the American voter.

He, like all Americans, deserves to be judged in the totality of his life and his service. He's done some things he'd like to change. He's done a great deal that is good.

I hope, Mr. Chairman, after several years of reviewing the same questions and the same facts, which always seem to come to the same resolve, this can finally come to some conclusion. And that somehow, despite all the doubts and the cynicism, we can have some confidence in professionals in the Justice Department who have reviewed this for so many years and seem to overwhelmingly agree with the attorney general.

Despite those in their own good judgments -- because I do not come here with Mr. Freeh or Mr. Conrad or Mr. LaBella doubting their own sincerity, their own belief in their own positions. But, indeed, maybe the way to conclude is with Mr. LaBella's or Mr. Freeh's own conclusion: They disagreed on the facts. They would have called it differently, but they respect those in the department who saw it differently, do not question the attorney general's independence or integrity. They believe that justice was done. If Mr. Freeh and Mr. LaBella and Mr. Conrad can come to that judgment, so can we.

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

HATCH: Thank you, senator. And Senator Thurmond has asked...

WATERS: That's Senator Robert Torricelli making his case for why the vice president should not be investigated by special counsel. His central political point was that if the attorney general thought an independent counsel -- or in this case, a special counsel -- was needed she would appoint one, because she has done so many times in the past.

At issue, the question before the committee posed by Arlen Specter: Did the vice president know he was soliciting hard money or soft money in the 21 or so coffees at the Old Executive Office Building and other coffees at the White House and at the Buddhist temple in 1996?

The justice correspondent, Pierre Thomas, who is closely following this story, has been listening along with me here.

Senator Specter was very careful, I noted, Pierre, when he said the vice president may -- and he stressed the word may -- have violated a federal law, suggesting the vice president bent the truth, shades of what is is.

PIERRE THOMAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's clear that Senator Specter is skeptical of Vice President Gore's remarks in his April 18th interview just a few months ago. But what you see unfolding at the hearing today is sort of a referendum on the work of the attorney general.

Was she fair? Did she deliberate properly? Was the investigation thorough?

And what Specter is suggesting is that there is evidence out there of possible wrongdoing, and with the possibility of wrongdoing, that Reno should have gone forward with independent counsels, and in this case, with Vice President Gore, a special counsel.

So really what you see unfolding here is a referendum on the actions of the attorney general. Senator Torricelli did his best to suggest that Reno has been very forceful in going for independent counsels. I think he pointed out the number, seven, and that she -- no one questions her integrity. Even some of the people, like FBI Director Louis Freeh, the former head of the campaign task force, Charles LaBella, who recommended actions that were contrary to what Reno ultimately decided to do.

But the referendum is on Reno today.

WATERS: There is also apparently some sensitivity on Arlen Specter's part to being called, as he put it, by Vice President Gore's surrogates, "accusing me of McCarthy-like tactics and in cahoots with the Bush campaign."

This story, of course, got its spotlight because Arlen Specter stepped out and broke the story. How did that come about? THOMAS: Well, Specter, I don't know that he broke the story. There was actually a wire report on this. But Specter did confirm in his remarks that he had reason -- quote -- "to believe" that there was a recommendation calling for a special counsel investigation of Gore.

So the Clinton administration and some of Gore's supporters have seized on that as to why he would be so public on confirming the sorry.

Now Specter's point of view is that he's been conducting an investigation of Reno's actions in regard to campaign finance and that it was perfectly legitimate for him to have knowledge of information and to bring it out to the public.

WATERS: All right, Pierre Thomas. We're standing by. We're waiting for Janet Reno to say something about all of this. And while we wait, let's take a break. "CNN TODAY" will continue.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WATERS: And Janet Reno is now addressing the Senate Judiciary Committee.

JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: ... and I want to thank you all for the thoughtfulness and the kindness that you have shown me.

Mr. Chairman, I understand that you sometimes think I'm crazy when I tell you that I appreciate the oversight function, but I have before this committee, because it brings new issues to our attention and it sharpens our decision-making at the Department of Justice. I moan and groan as I get ready for them, but I always find them helpful.

In the course of these oversight functions and committees, we have debated and disagreed, sometimes fiercely, on a number of issues, and today, obviously, is no exception. But I think our founding fathers valued the spirit of spirited debate and thought it one of the most important foundations of our government.

I'm going to take just a moment to reflect on something.

One of the most extraordinary experiences that I have had as attorney general is to welcome my colleagues, ministers of justice, ministers of the interior, law enforcement officials from the emerging democracies to my conference room to look at how they act almost with stars in their eyes as they are commenced on a great new undertaking. To see some of them fail and some of them succeed makes you realize how fragile democracy it is, and what a cherished institution it is and how we must not take it for granted.

This scene is the epitome of democracy. It represents the hallmarks of it: representative government, public accountability and the peaceful transfer of power. It is almost a miracle, but it is a great testament to the strength and the wonder of the human spirit.

It is a miracle that we have a Constitution that has stood the test of time in the advance of technology that our founding fathers never dreamed would be possible. But at the heart of that document, essentially and required, is the respect for individuals and the different opinions we hold. Although I may disagree with so many of you on so many occasions and agree with you completely on others, I respect you and I respect your opinion.

In this spirit, the department has tried very hard to cooperate with and facilitate the oversight process, thus following the long- standing executive branch policy and practice of seeking to accommodate congressional request for the information to the fullest extent with the constitutional and statutory obligations of the executive branch. The Constitution also wisely assigns each branch of the government distinct roles. Among the most important functions of the Justice Department, as part of the executive branch, is the faithful execution of the laws, including the vigorous but fair prosecution of criminals.

When there is conflict between the legislative and executive branch, I want to, and I think our task as public servants is to find solutions that respects our individual duties and permits both branches to do their job responsibly.

One issue will come out today amongst many others that I think I have got to address because I think it will require no comments on a number of occasions, and that is: I do not think it proper for me to comment on pending investigations and pending prosecutions. I think that those matters should be handled thoughtfully and professionally, not in headlines, but in courtrooms and in the processes of an investigation. I mean no disrespect whatsoever to the committee when I tell you that I cannot comment. I just feel very strongly that we must be careful in order to protect the investigation, protect leads, protect the reputation of people involved, lest information disseminated impede our careful and professional process that we pursue.

I know that some of you have been concerned about the department response, and if we have not done it as well as you would like, I will keep trying harder in the time that I have remaining. There is always opportunity for improvement. But at the same time, people should be careful to reflect accurately on the situation.

First, we are required by law to review material for privacy, grand jury secrecy and other obligations. That takes time. Secondly, we have competing demands from many senators and members of the House who each express a very strong sense of urgency about his or her own request, all at the same time. Third, the offices at the department are poised to respond to these requests, but they operate under statutory caps on personnel and salaries, despite marked increases in requests on these offices by the various committees of Congress. In addition, the same people who are responding to the document requests and requests for information are also the people that are trying to move what you and I would consider to be the agenda of the American people along.

Fourth, and most importantly, the department has, in my review, been very responsive. It has produced to this committee alone more than 8,000 pages in May and June relating to the appointment of independent counsels. We have produced or given access to tens of thousands of documents on Peter Lee, Wen Ho Lee, Johnny Chung, John Huang, Charlie Trie and Maria Hsia, among others; over 800 pages on the Loral waiver issue, and over a half a million pages on Waco.

Last and more importantly, we must be careful not to confuse our inability to provide you with certain material as being unresponsive. If I determine that a particular document's dissemination will interfere with an ongoing investigation or criminal prosecution and cannot provide that document to you at a particular time, this is not, in my view, being unresponsive. I am required by law to provide answers to you that you may not like, but I can assure each of you that much thought and reflection goes into a decision to say that I can't do this. This is not a matter I or anyone at the department takes lightly and it in no way indicates disrespect for the committee.

Much comment has been made about how I do things and who I rely on. I urge you to read carefully the filings made with the court on the matters relating to the independent counsel, for these are the documents where I've laid out the thorough investigation of the facts at issue, the careful analysis of the law involved, and the consistent, reasoned application of the law to the facts that has gone into each of these matters.

This work is complex, it is fact intensity, sound bites and quick appraisals are not conducive to thorough analysis. People's reputation often rests on how we talk about important matters. I urge you to read carefully the documents submitted. I think that these documents may provide additional information that would be helpful.

I value honest debate about all matters that come before me. I don't like yes people. Somebody said some of my decisions are unanimous; I don't think I've ever had a unanimous decision one way or the other. I think the mix has always been interesting. It is no secret by now that I rely on a wide variety of people. Nor do I count up the votes on each side. I don't say, "The majority wins," or I don't say, "This person wins."

I make the best judgment I can. Under the independent counsel statute, when it existed, Congress placed on me the responsibility to make the judgment. I made the best judgment I could and I will continue to try to do that.

As I told you once, Mr. Chairman, I don't do things based on polls, I do things based on the evidence and the law.

Senator Specter has commented on one of the particular cases and has said that the standard for determining the appointment of a special counsel is that there be specific and credible information that a crime may have been committed. That is the standard that has been used not for the application for independent counsel, but for the triggering of a preliminary investigation, which was done in the case to which he refers. And there is a provision for a preliminary investigation which is permitted and authorized by the act. That was triggered, the preliminary investigation was conducted. But the bottom line at that point was -- in determining whether the application should be made, was whether reasonable -- it was necessary to have further investigation and whether further investigation was reasonable and warranted. Thus, I think we look at each of the standards and try our best to make the best judgment we can, and I will look forward to that opportunity to talk with you today about it.

I've said when I appeared before you last that the American people should be extraordinarily proud of the people in the Department of Justice. If you want to blame somebody, if you reach disagreement, blame me. Don't blame them. They work so hard for you. They try to give you the best advice they can. Director Freeh will disagree with me, but he has done so much for this country.

There are people that you never hear about that do incredible jobs going over the law, getting the facts. Agents, border patrol officers, just so many different people in so many different ways. The American people should be very proud of them, and you, since many of them have served through one administration after another, should be equally proud of them. I know that I am. And I appreciate the opportunity to be here today, Mr. Chairman.

HATCH: Well, thank you, Madam Attorney General.

I'll defer to Senator Specter, who I believe is going to have five-minute rounds. All right.

Thank you, Madam Attorney General. I appreciate your appearing, appreciate you being here.

RENO: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

SPECTER: Attorney General Reno, I begin with a memorandum which has been the subject of considerable discussion, and that was from FBI Director Freeh to Mr. Esposito, dated December 9, 1996, and I'll read the pertinent part.

Quote, "I also advised the attorney general Lee Radek's comment to you, that there was a lot of, quote, 'pressure,' close quote, on him and on PIS" -- the Public Integrity Section -- "regarding this case, because, quote, 'The attorney general's job might hang in the balance,' close quote, or words to that effect. I stated those comments would be enough for me to take him and the Criminal Division off the case, completely."

Did Director Freeh say that to you, Attorney General Reno?

RENO: I don't have any recollection of it, Senator. What I have in terms of a recollection of the things that he covers in the whole memo, is his reference at a time and place different than he suggested this meeting took place, in which he talked about the need for a junkyard dog prosecutor, and that he was anxious to have the matter referred to the FBI. But I'm sure he thinks he said it in those words or in so many other words but I don't remember it, sir. SPECTER: Well, in this memo he talks about the junkyard dog concept. But I come back to this point, Attorney General Reno, because it's a very unusual point to refer to one of your top deputies, Mr. Radek, talking about pressure on him and on his unit, that the attorney general's job might hang in the balance. If, in fact, that was said isn't that something of sufficient importance that you would remember?

RENO: Yes, I think so, sir. But I think Director Freeh -- I feel very strongly that he thinks he said it. I don't know how he said it or the circumstances that occurred at that moment, but I have no memory of it. And, clearly, if I had any memory I would have gone back to Lee Radek and said, What is this all about?

SPECTER: But you think that if it had been said, you would remember it?

RENO: I think if I had understood it, I would have remembered it. I think he said it or thinks that he said it in that that or so many words, and it's the "so many other words" that is the puzzle to me of what I might have confused. I note that Neal Gallagher said that there was pressure to do a good job, because it was going to be a critical and sensitive investigation.

SPECTER: Neal Gallagher and Mr. Esposito confirmed that Mr. Radek did say that.

RENO: I understand that. That's what was confusing to me was that they talk about the pressure to do a good job. I don't know how Director Freeh said it, but I did not understand it.

SPECTER: Let me move to another subject, because the time is very short. And quote very briefly from your testimony on confirmation about the need for independent counsel where you said, quote, "It is absolutely essential for the public to have confidence in the system and you cannot do that when there is a conflict or an appearance of conflict, and the person, who, in effect, is the chief prosecutor. The credibility and the public confidence engendered with the fact that an independent and impartial outsider has examined the evidence and concluded prosecution is not warranted serves to clear a public official's name in the way that no Justice Department investigation ever could."

Now I've recited key facts as to the vice president, and there have been references made to Cisneros and Espy, and I turn now to Alexis Herman where you appointed independent counsel. But in your submission said, quote, "While I cannot conclusively determine at this time that any of these allegations are credible, much of the detail of the story he has told has been corroborated, though none of it clearly inculcates Herman. Although our investigation has developed no evidence clearly demonstrating Secretary Herman's involvement in these matters and substantial evidence suggesting that she may not have been involved, a great deal of Yanni's (ph) story has been corroborated. We are thus unable to conclude that it is not credible."

Now it is true that asking for independent counsel, means that you have to make a determination -- my red light went on. I'll finish within 30 seconds.

You must make a determination there are reasonable grounds to believe that further investigation is warranted. We are not saying that the vice president committed perjury, as Senator Torricelli has raised the question, but only of sufficient evidence to go further. In light of what is on the record to the vice president, how can you order independent counsel for Alexis Herman, but not for Vice President Gore?

RENO: First of all, I did not order an independent counsel. I don't have that power, the court...

SPECTER: Recommended it.

RENO: I applied to the court, and the court appoints..

In that instance, I have got to trigger a preliminary investigation, if I can, on two accounts: one, if I have specific and credible information that a crime may have been committed; or two, if I cannot show that the information was either specific and credible or that I can disprove it.

So that's what precipitated the triggering of the preliminary investigation in Secretary Herman's case. In the course of the investigation, I could not disprove or I could not prove that he was not credible, and thus felt that the further investigation was necessary because I, under the Independent Counsel Act, while conducting a preliminary investigation, did not have the tools to get to the answer that was -- such as a grand jury proceeding, subpoenas or immunity issues.

In the instance of the vice president, you have spoken of four people who remembered. Mr. Strauss did not remember. When shown his notes, he said, that must have been the case, but he had no memory. We interviewed 15 people, two of whom remembered the discussion. The wide variety of -- and everybody gave information, nobody seemed to withhold information, and we could not, as we spell out in the submission to the court, which has been a matter of public record, which is a very careful report on just what we did.

As noted above, in order to prove violation of section 1001 in this case, the government would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that at the time he made the telephone calls there were at issue in the '97 investigation, the vice president actually knew that the media campaign had a hard money component or that the limit on hard money was $20,000.

In this case, there is no direct evidence of such knowledge. While the vice president was present at the meeting, there is no evidence that he heard the statements or understood their implications so as to suggest the falsity of his statements two years later that he believed the media fund was entirely soft money. Nor does anyone recall the vice president asking any questions or making any comments at the meeting about the media fund, much less questions or comments indicating an understanding of the issues of the blend of hard and soft money needed for DNC mixed media expenditures. Witnesses were also asked whether they recalled any other discussion with the vice president about the hard money component in the media fund. None recalled any, nor did any recall the vice president saying or doing anything at any other time that would indicate that indeed he knew, whether from the meeting or some other source, that there was a hard money component to the media fund.

I would ask each of you, I would ask everybody listening, if you had a meeting -- if you had a meeting two years before of this committee and somebody raised a subject and you did not hear it or do not remember it, can you be expected to remember everything you hear at every meeting you go to?

And what we concluded in this instance was that the range of impressions and vague misunderstandings among all the meeting attendees is striking and undercuts any reasonable inference that a mere attendance at the meeting should have served to communicate to the vice president an accurate understanding of the facts.

We concluded that there was, under the law, as the statute spells it out, the statute provides that I shall apply to the division of the court for the appointment of an independent counsel if, upon completion of the preliminary investigation, I determine that there are reasonable grounds to believe that further investigation is warranted. I concluded that there was not.

Let me make sure that -- 15 attendees were interviewed. The president submitted a statement and one other attendee has testified about the meeting under oath saying he had no memory of it.

SPECTER: Thank you.

Senator Leahy?

Senator Torricelli?

TORRICELLI: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Madam Attorney General, in reaching judgments about the application of the Independent Counsel Act, it was your practice to consult with a wide range of senior officials in the Justice Department?

RENO: That's correct, Senator.

TORRICELLI: And was this a standard list or did it change on occasion?

RENO: It changed, depending on the circumstances and as people came and left the department.

TORRICELLI: Mr. Esposito of the FBI testified that actually in this instance he believed that, to your credit, you actually consulted on the campaign finance question with a larger group of people; that the FBI had not always been consulted in the past and asked for their advice on independent counsel, but in this instance, given the seriousness of the matter, you seemed to expand the list to get a wider range of opinions.

RENO: I included the FBI in my weekly meetings, asking them on each occasion -- sometimes the meetings weren't weekly, they were -- but they were on the average of about once a week -- asking if there was anything else that I should know or argue -- did they want to argue with me, did they want to disagree with me. I tried to be as open and as accessible as I could.

TORRICELLI: In the seven other instances when you named independent counsel, were all of these senior officials in the Justice Department always of a single mind or have a single perspective on whether the appointment should be made or who it was or how the department should proceed, or was it common to have occasionally someone disagree?

RENO: I think I made the statement earlier that they were not all unanimous, but I think there were -- I'd have to go back and look at it, but I -- and I'm not sure that there were any that were unanimous, but...

TORRICELLI: So it might be unusual that this Congress is -- this committee is questioning the judgment because there was not a unanimous judgment with regard to campaign finance independent counsel, but in fact it was not unusual in the department for people in other instances which have receive no attention, upon which we've had no hearings, your judgment has not been questioned, it was not unusual there for there to be disagreements.

RENO: And if you look at the Supreme Court of the United States, 5-4 decisions are often commonplace.

TORRICELLI: In proceeding with a preliminary investigation of the vice president in 1997 and 1998, the FBI and the Department of Justice interviewed approximately 250 witnesses, including the vice president, former members of his staff, DNC officials, White House officials, reviewed phone records, interviewed the vice president personally.

In reaching this preliminary inquiry, was this equally exhaustive of the process you went through in other preliminary investigations? Or it would appear to me that indeed you went to some extraordinary lengths that might seem beyond other instances. How would you compare the amount of investigatory work that went into this preliminary inquiry with others that were conducted?

RENO: I tried to be as thorough and as complete as I could each time I asked the court for the appointment of an independent counsel or I notified the court that there was no basis for concluding that a further investigation was warranted. So I don't think it was exceptional, we just tried to be thorough in all the instances, Senator.

TORRICELLI: Let me read for you the memorandums of the views of a couple people on the central question that Senator Specter raised about whether or not you were under political pressure or some other influence in not naming an independent counsel. Mr. Radek, in his memorandum, writes of discussions with Director Freeh: "He repeatedly had assured us and the Congress that while there had been disagreements from time to time over investigative strategy, the investigation had not been impeded or blocked in any way."

Mr. Radek then writes of the task force generally and Mr. LaBella personally: "Have repeatedly told us that no investigative steps were closed to them, that they were free to follow any leads, and that if their efforts developed specific and credible information that any covered person may have violated the law the attorney general will trigger the act."

Now, it is being alleged by this committee that there was pressure involved or compromise of judgment, and cited are Mr. LaBella and Mr. Freeh as principal witnesses. I have just read you two statements quoting Mr. LaBella and Mr. Freeh making very clear there was no inappropriate pressure, no other judgments, indeed standing as testimony for your own independence of judgment.

I assume -- is this -- are these statements consistent with what Mr. LaBella and Mr. Freeh told you personally, that while they may have disagreed with your decision they had never questioned your independence in doing so?

RENO: Mr. LaBella sent me a letter that I will treasure that sets forth his feelings, and one of the things that I prize most from these seven years is something that was given to me by the FBI. It is a honorary special agent badge and it's something that I treasure. It would not have been given, I think, without Director Freeh's approval. He presented it to me, and he presented it to me after we have had our disagreements.

TORRICELLI: You should know that people may have the impression that those who disagreed with you on the independent counsel statute, not only including Mr. Freeh and Mr. LaBella, but, indeed, the line attorney, Mr. Mansfield, and others, that because they disagreed with you they may believe that you had reached the wrong judgment or that it was not a fair judgment or that the facts only supported a contrary judgment.

In many of our hearings, there have been few of us present other than the members of the committee itself, So those of us who are joining for the first time today should know this: Not one of them -- not one individual who disagreed with you on the appointment of the independent counsel hesitated to say to this committee that, based on the facts and the law, a reasonable person would not have reached the same judgment that you reached.

Now, finally, if I could, Mr. Chairman, I know the time has expired and I'll then conclude...

HATCH: Senator Torricelli, we're going to come back for another round. I don't mind your asking another question, but I don't want to establish the precedent that we're going to go to 10-minute rounds here. So I'd ask you to wait till the next round. TORRICELLI: Fine, Mr. Chairman.

SPECTER: Senator Grassley.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: Yes, Mr. Chairman, I'm going to...

WATERS: All right, Robert Torricelli has been given his time with the attorney general of the United States, as was Arlen Specter. Establishing criteria for triggering application for independent counsel law.

Justice correspondent Pierre Thomas listening along with us. What do we learn here, Pierre?

THOMAS: Well, again, you're hearing some of the seemingly age- old campaign finance issues. You're hearing about coffees, you're hearing about soft money and hard money. Again, these issues are looking at Reno's judgment in not going forward for independent counsels to investigate campaign finance.

Now, again, this was resurrected by the issue of whether Vice President Gore told the truth in an April 18th interview with new campaign task force head Robert Conrad about the Buddhist temple.

So again, you have people questioning what Reno's motives were, that you saw Senator Specter talk about the notion that one of Reno's principal aides saw pressure, felt pressure in this particular investigation, in that Reno's job could be at stake. Reno said she had no recollection of it.

And also, you see the theme of the FBI director's name coming up over and over again, where FBI Director Freeh believed that there should be an independent counsel investigation on campaign finance. Reno did not.

Now, Reno's holding out that she did not want "yes men" around her and that these were simply disagreements among lawyers.

WATERS: All right, Pierre Thomas, justice correspondent. And again, Janet Reno, as is her want, is not tipping her hand as to this latest recommendation by Robert Conrad to trigger a special counsel appointment to investigate the vice president's '96 campaign fund- raising activity, declining comment, saying no disrespect to the committee, but she refuses comment on all pending investigations. We've heard her say that many times before.

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