By Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
As attorney general in one of the most scandal-plagued administrations in recent history, Janet Reno has remained an outsider, somewhat aloof from the White House.
She's routinely described as fair, nonpolitical, and independent. Indeed, she's one of the few attorneys general since the late 1800s who has not been a personal friend of the president.
But in refusing - for the fourth time - to recommend appointment of a special counsel to investigate alleged campaign fund-raising abuses by Democrats, Ms. Reno is putting her reputation on the line. Some congressional Republicans are now questioning whether Reno might have soft pedaled the fund-raising case as payback for being reappointed attorney general by President Clinton earlier this year. If that is the case, then investigators working for two congressional committees now probing the Democratic fund-raising scandal should be in a good position in several months to determine whether Reno is engaging in a form of obstruction of justice. The attorney general will have an opportunity April 16 to personally explain to Senate critics her refusal this week to recommend appointment of a special counsel to investigate alleged Democratic fund-raising abuses. The potential conflicts inherent in her decision are immediately apparent. "There is a clear conflict of interest when the attorney general appointed by the president is called upon to investigate possible illegal acts by the vice president and other high-ranking administration officials," says Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. A squeaky-clean career Analysts say there's nothing in Reno's past to suggest she would risk breaking federal laws to help the president, vice president, or Democratic Party. Her aloofness from the White House is illustrated by a recent disclosure about how the Justice Department handled sensitive intelligence regarding possible efforts by China to influence US elections via illegal campaign contributions. The Justice Department's FBI briefed two National Security Council staff members on the matter, but the information evidently never reached Mr. Clinton. Reno has said that she tried to telephone national security adviser Anthony Lake with the information, but that she was unable to reach him and didn't follow up. Reno's independent position in the Clinton Cabinet is unusual, particularly in an administration beset by legal and ethical scandals. She had no prior history with Clinton before joining the administration in 1993 as his third choice for attorney general. And she is not considered a confidante of the president or first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Arkansas insider who filled that role at the Justice Department was Webster Hubbell. Mr. Hubbell served as Reno's deputy until he was forced from office in April 1994 amid allegations that he defrauded his former law partners in Arkansas of nearly $500,000. More recently, Hubbell has been in the news following press reports that wealthy political supporters of Clinton paid Hubbell more than $400,000 at a time when he was under investigation by the Whitewater special counsel. …