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Reno's sham appointment

When it became apparent last fall that the "Public Integrity" section of the Department of Justice was impeding investigation into the Clinton conspiracy to steer foreign money illegally into the 1996 campaign, the pressure of the FBI and of public opinion came on Janet Reno to seek appointment of independent counsel.

Embarrassed by the ability of the press and Congress to unearth evidence of "the Asian connection" while her Criminal Division dithered, the attorney general reached to an assistant prosecutor in San Diego for someone controllable by Clinton Justice but presentable as "professional." Charles G. LaBella was brought to Washington, we were assured, to get to the bottom of the campaign scandal even if it went to the top.

His press was terrific. And for a time, he replaced foot-dragging with activity, indicting Clinton fund-raisers Charlie Trie and Maria Hsia. But LaBella's Trie indictment made it appear that the White House fund-raisers and their Democratic National Committee agents were not running a conspiracy to undermine campaign finance laws; they were supposedly innocent dupes of a sinister band of Asian-Americans.

Johnny Chung, the conduit of money from China who compared the Clinton White House gates to a subway turnstile, copped a guilty plea. His promised testimony has not, however, led to hot pursuit of John Huang. That Los Angeles resident was Clinton's personal channel to Riady family money and knows too much; he has taken the Fifth and has not been touched.

Now we learn that Reno's much-touted answer to independent counsel has been negotiating for months to return to Southern California. Forced to confirm a New York Times story, Reno announced Friday that LaBella is to be rewarded with interim appointment to head the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego.

It seems that the Friend of Bill from Yale occupying that powerful post agreed to vacate it to take a job as local school chief. A grateful president will soon induce California Sen. Barbara Boxer to recommend that the opened slot be awarded to LaBella.

Remember the outcry from all of us when Ken Starr wanted to return to Pepperdine before his job as prosecutor was done? Not a peep about LaBella's premeditated discontinuity.

"My office in San Diego needs me," LaBella tells me, "and my loyalty is to my office." That's curious; Reno led us to believe his first loyalty would be to the United States.

He informs us that Reno told his boss back home that "this mission was to turn the investigation around, get it on track, and would last three or four months. . . . In my own head, I figured about six or seven, or until this summer."

Thus do we now learn that Reno wanted only a short-term bailout to lessen the pressure, not a prosecutor to stick with the case until it was cracked. "I'm not an independent counsel," says the itinerant lawman, "I didn't come here to spend six years of my life." How about two? "I would never have come."

But doesn't the prosecutor's long-planned early departure signal that Justice is interested only in small fry? "It's not going to affect the investigation in any way," the San Diego loyalist maintains.

Does this mean a return to Public Integrity's cover-up? "No! Exclamation point," insists LaBella. "They're not going to do to the next guy what they did to me. It'll be a field prosecutor, and there'll be time for a seamless transition."

Charles LaBella is not corrupt, but he let himself be used corruptly.

Now is the time for Judiciary Committees to call him and his compliant boss to expose Reno's sham appointment, and to turn up the heat for an independent prosecutor to fight to the finish.

New York Times News Service

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