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."

Romer lost some credibility when the Post reported how the papers had been found. It turns out the documents were not buried beneath reams of paper in some out-of-the-way warehouse; they had been in Sullivan's old office all along. Not only that, they were in a file cabinet -- which just happened to be the only file cabinet in the office. Apparently the DNC had not thought to look there.

Republicans were appalled. But the Post report -- published on August 8 -- did not move the Justice Department to inquire about the truthfulness of Sullivan's testimony; the Thompson committee lawyer says there has been no inquiry concerning Sullivan.

When asked about the Barbour, Fowler, and Sullivan cases, the lawyer says the Justice Department's behavior has been disappointing at best. "I was surprised and a little dismayed," he says, to learn that Justice had been dealing with committee Democrats while showing no interest in evidence gathered by Republicans. "Typically, when someone wants something from the committee, one would assume that one would go to the chairman of the committee." But at least as far as the Thompson committee is concerned, that's not happening. For now, all the Republicans can do is prepare to refer their evidence to Justice -- and hope the department sees fit to use it.

Michael Brown and Nolanda Hill: Then there is the matter of two intimates of Ron Brown, the late commerce secretary -- his son Michael and Nolanda Hill, his business partner and close friend. On August 28, Michael Brown pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge of arranging for $ 4,000 to be illegally contributed to Ted Kennedy's 1994 campaign. The plea was an embarrassment for Brown, but what was much more important -- and largely unreported in the press -- was that in return for Brown's plea to a minor offense, the government agreed to close the book on an investigation into alleged corruption involving Brown and his father.

In 1994, Michael Brown was hired by Eugene and Nora Lum, two Democratic activists and fund-raisers who had bought a small oil and gas company in Oklahoma. Even though Brown had no experience in the business, the Lums paid Brown at least $ 150,000 in "consulting fees," gave him a 5 percent interest in the company (valued at $ 500,000), and showered him with other benefits, including a $ 60,000 membership at the exclusive Robert Trent Jones golf club outside Washington.

Former employees of the company say Brown did not perform any work in return for his lavish compensation. One former top official later testified that the Lums hired Michael Brown "to gain influence with the Department of Commerce, and that's it." Some investigators believe that the Lums actually gave the money to Michael Brown so that he would pass it on to his father. Brown's lawyer, William Taylor III, concedes that "Michael paid some money to his father at a point in time" after the younger Brown began receiving money from the Lums. But Taylor denies that the younger Brown was a conduit for money given to him by the Lums for the purpose of winning favor with the secretary of commerce. If he did, that might well have made Michael Brown part of a scheme to pass illegal gratuities to his father.

None of that matters anymore. When Brown pleaded guilty to the campaign- finance misdemeanor, the Justice Department agreed that it "will not prosecute the defendant for any other conduct by the defendant of which the Public Integrity Section . . . [is] presently aware." (By the way, the prosecutor who gave such generous terms to Brown is the same man who zealously prosecuted fired White House travel-office director Billy Dale.) The Brown case is now closed.

Nolanda Hill is the Texas businesswoman who became Ron Brown's close friend. She formed a company called First International and gave Ron Brown a half- interest. Brown performed no work for the company. When he became commerce secretary and had to give up his lucrative position at the law firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow, First International began to give him so-called partnership distributions. Brown received three checks of $ 45,000 each in the spring, summer, and fall of 1993 -- and accepted a total of more than $ 400,000 from Hill between April 1993 and August 1994.

It was Hill's dealings with Brown that prompted Janet Reno to call for the appointment of an independent counsel in May 1995. When Brown died, the independent counsel transferred the evidence he had gathered to the Justice Department. Eighteen months after Brown's death, a lawyer for Hill says that he has at times gotten the impression that the Justice Department is " stirring around." But so far, nothing has happened.

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.

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