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UNEQUAL JUSTICE

12:00 AM, Oct 13, 1997 • By BYRON YORK
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A Tale of Two Congressmen: And how has the Justice Department treated allegations against two congressmen, one a Democrat, one a Republican? First, the Republican. On March 19, the Washington Post ran a front-page story in which Mark Siegel, a Democratic lobbyist, accused House Government Reform and Oversight Committee chairman Dan Burton of shaking him down for campaign contributions. The accusations were particularly damaging because at the time Burton was gearing up for hearings investigating Democratic campaign-finance abuses (after many delays, those hearings are set to begin this week).


The Justice Department moved quickly against Burton. Just eight days after the Post article appeared, Siegel was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury investigating the matter. He testified April 2. Since then, the investigation has continued, carried on by a small team of FBI agents. In June, Republicans Henry Hyde and Bob Livingston wrote Reno to question her decision to send FBI agents to Pakistan as part of the Burton investigation while at the same time failing to find campaign-finance figures who had fled to China. Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Livingston, says Reno did not respond. In August, the two congressmen sent another letter, asking why she had failed to respond to the first; Corallo says Reno has not answered that one, either.


Now to the Democratic congressman: Jim McDermott. It has been nearly 10 months since a Florida couple illegally recorded a telephone call between Newt Gingrich and several members of the House leadership. The couple, John and Alice Martin, first gave the tape to Florida Democrat Karen Thurman. They later passed it on to Washington Democrat Jim McDermott, at that time the ranking minority member of the House committee that was investigating ethics charges against Gingrich. From there, the tape made its way to the New York Times, which published a front-page story suggesting the recording showed Gingrich violating an agreement he had made not to defend himself on the ethics charges.


The Justice Department quickly began an investigation into McDermott's distribution of the tape, but the probe seems to have made little progress. In April, the Martins pleaded guilty to illegally intercepting and recording a phone conversation. Beyond that, no charges have been made. "This has been frustrating to us," says Terry Holt, a spokesman for Ohio Republican John Boehner, who was among those illegally recorded by the Martins. "Boehner said this case was so simple that even Barney Fife could solve it." Holt adds that Boehner has written several letters to Janet Reno, asking for an update on the case. He says Reno has failed to answer "almost all" of Boehner's requests.


Of course, listing Republican complaints does not prove that Haley Barbour, Dan Burton, and some others do not deserve to be investigated. But it does suggest that the Justice Department is aggressively pursuing some cases while sluggishly investigating others.


Justice Department spokesman Bert Brandenburg dismisses the criticism as selective memory. "You can ask Dan Rostenkowski," he says. "You can ask Mel Reynolds. And Walter Fauntroy. And Mary Rose Oakar. And the Agriculture Department employees who were raising money for Clinton/Gore '92." Brandenburg says the Justice Department has a responsibility to investigate all the facts of each case, and that can take time. "A good prosecutor does not run an investigation based on the latest that's in the newspaper," he says. "They have a higher standard to meet."


Such a defense is not likely to allay Republican suspicions. Why would the Justice Department apparently bond with minority Democrats on the Thompson committee while ignoring the majority Republicans? Why can the department move with such speed in some cases and with such hesitation in others? Some exasperated Republicans have suggested those concerns are grounds for impeaching Reno -- but they might learn more if they instead decided to investigate the investigators.




Byron York is an investigative writer with The American Spectator.