1. Archive

The Justice bait-and-switch

Last September, Attorney General Janet Reno tapped a seasoned, respected prosecutor, Charles LaBella, to invigorate the Justice Department's directionless campaign finance inquiry. She used LaBella's reputation to fend off demands, by FBI Director Louis Freeh and many others, for appointment of an independent counsel. The department hinted that LaBella would look into the possible illegal use of "soft money" by President Clinton's re-election campaign, opening a door Reno had prematurely shut as part of her effort to prevent a searching independent inquiry into the Democrats' campaign financing.

But now, just six months later, LaBella is planning to depart, making it plain that his appointment was a public-relations masquerade. James Desarno, the FBI official who has supervised the agents on the case, is leaving too, further broadcasting the fact that Reno has again snookered those citizens who wanted a full investigation of the most corrupt campaign fund-raising operation since Watergate.

All along, Reno has used a contorted reading of the Independent Counsel Act to avoid the reality that she has an inescapable conflict of interest when it comes to investigating the president who appointed her. So this latest turn in her sorry handling of the investigation is hardly surprising. But it is especially deplorable in its use of public employees to create the illusion of investigative vigor.

There is no way to square Reno's pledge to see the matter through to its conclusion with her decision to elevate LaBella and Desarno to new positions. With her final approval considered just a formality, LaBella is scheduled to return in July to assume leadership of the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego. Desarno is to become the assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division.

This bailout in mid-investigation is just as reprehensible as Kenneth Starr's much-criticized attempt last year to shuck his Whitewater inquiry for an academic post in Malibu, Calif.

Reno should postpone the new assignments until these two men complete the work the government is paying them to do. She cynically used their reputations to create the illusion of a thorough and fair investigation. Now that the heat is off, they are scattering, and the betting here is that the inquiry will return to its earlier state of momentumless disorganization. The lot of them should be ashamed.