12:00 AM, Oct 13, 1997 • By BYRON YORK
Perhaps Janet Reno hoped to buy herself a little breathing room by approving a 60-day preliminary investigation that could lead to an independent-counsel probe of Vice President Al Gore's campaign phone calls. Her decision last week seemed designed -- at least in part -- to satisfy Republican critics who have accused her of dragging her feet, bungling, and even obstructing the ongoing campaign-finance probe.
In beginning a Gore investigation, though, the attorney general also rejected -- again -- the demands of House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde and others in Congress that she consider an independent counsel for a wide range of White House campaign abuses. Reno's decision on Gore is not likely to satisfy them.
But in all the controversy over an independent counsel, one should remember that campaign finance is just one of the reasons Republicans are losing faith in the Justice Department. Republican suspicions have been growing for more than three years now -- the result of several cases in which the Justice Department's actions, whether by intent or not, have had the effect of punishing opponents of the Clinton White House and preventing punishment of its friends.
The Party Chairmen: Consider the different treatment of former RNC chairman Haley Barbour and former Democratic party co-chairman Don Fowler. Barbour testified before Sen. Fred Thompson's campaign-finance panel on July 24. He was questioned extensively about an arrangement in which a Hong Kong businessman guaranteed a $ 2.1 million loan to the GOP's National Policy Forum. A large part of the loan was never paid back, and Democrats -- along with some Republicans -- suspected that the transaction amounted to an infusion of foreign cash into the Republican campaign.
Barbour dazzled the committee, denying any wrongdoing and standing up to every criticism. But his testimony was called into question when later witnesses -- one of them a former RNC chief -- contradicted Barbour's account of the loan deal. Barbour, the witnesses said, knew where the money came from and wanted it anyway to help Republicans win control of Congress in 1994.
The conflicting stories caught the attention of the Justice Department's campaign-finance task force, which began to pursue the case with extraordinary speed. "They called within a week or so of Barbour's appearance, asking for the stuff we had used," says Jim Jordan, a spokesman for Democrats on the Senate committee. "They were looking for conflicts in testimony."
They apparently found what they wanted; in late September, the Wall Street Journal reported that prosecutors had presented evidence about Barbour to a grand jury. The Justice Department is apparently trying to prove the transaction was an illegal foreign contribution, and that Barbour lied about it during his testimony. It appears that the Barbour matter is the first case brought before a grand jury as a result of the Thompson hearings.
And Fowler? He testified before the Thompson committee on September 9. Fowler repeatedly insisted that he had "racked my brain" but could not remember calling the CIA on behalf of shady oilman Roger Tamraz. Fowler's forgetfulness became difficult to believe when Republicans held up handfuls of memos from the CIA and the DNC showing that he had indeed interceded for Tamraz. And the week after Fowler testified, the documentary evidence was supported even further by the apparently unimpeachable testimony of former national-security aide Sheila Heslin.
Unlike doubts about Barbour's testimony, it appears the conflicts involving Fowler's sworn statements did not attract the attention of the Justice Department. At the very least, the department is not interested in any evidence gathered by Thompson's staff. "They have sought nothing from us," says a Republican committee lawyer who asked that his name not be used.
The same appears to be true in the case of Richard Sullivan, the former DNC finance director who testified before the committee on July 9. In a sworn deposition, Sullivan told Thompson's staff that as a general rule he did not take many notes and didn't keep many files. For its part, the DNC told the committee that an extensive search had been done for Sullivan's documents, and that all had been handed over.
Imagine the surprise of Republicans when, after Sullivan's deposition and public testimony, the DNC told the committee it had discovered 4,000 additional pages of Sullivan documents -- l,500 of them handwritten notes concerning sensitive matters, including the Tamraz affair. Current DNC chairman Roy Romer apologized to Thompson and later told the Washington Post that the late discovery of the documents was a "pure, innocent oversight."