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Hearings of the
Subcommittee on Rules & Organization of the House

Cooperation, Comity, and Confrontation: Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch

Statement of Hon. Dan Burton (R-IN)
Chairman -- Committee on Government Reform

Shortly after I became Chairman of the Committee on Government Reform, I began an investigation of campaign fundraising irregularities. Today, I will not recount the findings of that investigation. Rather, I will share some of my insights into how the Department of Justice has failed to do its job, and how the Attorney General and her political appointees have placed roadblocks in front of my Committee. What began as an inquiry into illegal campaign fundraising has now become, in part, oversight of the Justice Department’s failure to do the business of the American people.

Before I summarize my findings, I would like to note my concern over the demise of the Independent Counsel statute. The Independent Counsel law, to be sure, was not perfect. It had fundamental constitutional problems. But what happens when an Attorney General must investigate his or her boss or political party? Remember, in the campaign fundraising scandal, the main targets were not only high ranking government officials, but the people who ran a political party. The party itself was directly implicated. And the Attorney General’s professional career was primarily as an elected official of that party. There couldn’t be a more clear conflict of interest. In my view, there is no way that the head of the Department of Justice can investigate her boss and her political party and maintain the confidence of the American people. By conducting what has clearly been a failed investigation, she further eroded the people’s respect for the Department of Justice. In my view, this is Attorney General Reno’s legacy – through incompetence and partisan zeal, she has managed to bring the Justice Department to shame and disrepute. Confidence in the Department’s ability to work for the benefit of the American people is at an all time low.

In the next few weeks, I will introduce legislation to create a bipartisan panel to choose a pool of qualified individuals who can be called upon to serve as Justice Department special prosecutors. This process will avoid the constitutional problems of the Independent Counsel law, but it will permit individuals from outside the Administration to supervise sensitive Justice Department investigations.

Now let me summarize my concerns with the Justice Department and Attorney General Reno. Over the past two years, the Government Reform Committee has learned that the Reno Justice Department is unable to conduct an impartial, competent investigation of the Clinton-Gore Administration. Even more troubling than this fact, though, is that the Reno Justice Department appears to be determined to prevent Congress from conducting its constitutionally-required oversight. Simply put, the Justice Department has dropped the ball, and having done so, wants to keep Congress from picking it up.

I. Problems with the Justice Department’s Investigation

Over the last two years, the Government Reform Committee has closely scrutinized the Justice Department’s campaign finance investigation. We have learned that this investigation was doomed from its start, and was then botched repeatedly by the Attorney General and her staff.

A. Failure to Appoint an Independent Counsel

The first, and obvious, problem with the Department’s investigation is that Janet Reno, a political appointee, is even conducting it. It has been clear from the beginning of the campaign finance investigation that the Attorney General has a hopeless conflict of interest in trying to investigate her own boss. As we all know, the two top investigators working on the case, FBI Director Freeh, and the former head of the Campaign Financing Task Force, Charles La Bella, both strongly recommended the appointment of an Independent Counsel. However, the Attorney General relied instead on the advice of political appointees like Bob Litt and Lee Radek, who opposed the appointment of an Independent Counsel.

The Attorney General was wrong on the facts and the law. There were two victims of the Attorney General’s illegal decision – the American people, and ironically, the Justice Department itself. The country has suffered because illegal acts undermining our electoral system are going unpunished. The Justice Department is suffering because, since the Attorney General has insisted on keeping this politically charged investigation in house, any mistake made by DOJ investigators will become magnified, and subject to speculation about whether political influence played a role. The integrity and reputation of the Justice Department, which were supposed to be protected by the Independent Counsel law, have suffered. Permit me to cite a few examples of destructive decisions made by the Attorney General.

B. Charlie Trie Search Warrant

In early 1997, Charlie Trie was subpoenaed by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to produce records relating to his fundraising for the DNC. Rather than comply with the subpoena, Trie told his bookkeeper to hide and destroy documents that were embarrassing to him and the Clinton Administration. In June 1997, the FBI began to look through Trie’s trash, and discovered that his bookkeeper was destroying documents responsive to the Senate subpoena. Immediately, FBI agents asked that DOJ lawyers obtain a search warrant to search Trie’s house and get any documents before they were destroyed. While DOJ lawyers were on their way to Little Rock to get the search warrant, the three politically connected lawyers heading the investigation, Bob Litt, Lee Radek, and Laura Ingersoll, decided not to get a warrant. They apparently thought that evidence of document destruction by Trie’s bookkeeper did not give them probable cause to get a warrant.

The FBI agents involved in the case thought that the Justice Department’s decision was legally insupportable, and they objected. But, nothing was done until Chuck La Bella came to head the Task Force in the fall of 1997. Once he came in, the Task Force did get a warrant, and discovered that Trie has hidden thousands of documents in his house. He was soon indicted for obstruction of justice, and these charges led to his recent guilty plea.

The decision by Janet Reno’s Justice Department officials not to get a search warrant led to critical delay in the Trie case. It is also possible that critical documents were lost in the four months it took to finally get a warrant.

C. Light Sentences for Trie and Huang

Within the last two months, both Charlie Trie and John Huang have pled guilty, and are reportedly cooperating with the Justice Department. Under the plea agreements that they have signed, in exchange for their cooperation, they will receive sentences that result in no jail time, and small fines. How do these sentences compare with other people accused of similar crimes? In the last four years, U.S. Attorneys have prosecuted a number of people accused of making illegal political contributions. In almost every case, the defendant received a large fine, up to $6 million, and they have also received prison sentences, and home detention. In this case, the two central figures in the 1996 campaign fundraising scandal aren’t going to get any prison time.

D. Lack of Administration Assistance

As the members of the Subcommittee likely know, the Government Reform Committee’s investigation was hindered by the fact that over 120 witnesses either fled the country or took the Fifth when the Committee tried to contact them. If the Justice Department is going to do a thorough job, they have to try to speak to some of those 120 witnesses, and they have to obtain foreign bank records that show where all of this illegal money originated. It would be reasonable to expect that the Justice Department, with all of the weight of the State Department and the White House behind it, could pressure foreign governments to cooperate with their investigation. However, to the best of my knowledge, the Justice Department has not received any significant cooperation from China, Indonesia, or the other countries involved. This failure appears to be entirely the result of the Justice Department not pushing the White House or the State Department to obtain foreign cooperation.

E. Intriago Case

The Committee has also uncovered another disturbing case where the Justice Department inexplicably dropped the ball, and failed to prosecute a simple case. In 1996, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office referred a case of illegal political contributions by the Castro family to the Justice Department. The evidence in the case showed that the money for the contributions was given to the Castros by Orlando Castro Llanes, a Venezuelan banker widely suspected of laundering money for narcotics interests. The evidence also showed that the contribution was facilitated by Charles Intriago, a former DOJ prosecutor who now publishes a newsletter on money laundering. DOJ failed to bring any case against Intriago, even though the evidence clearly demonstrated his guilt. The Manhattan prosecutors who referred the case told us that they could have brought an indictment against Intriago after an afternoon of work. Janet Reno’s Justice Department, though, spent several months sitting on the case, and then let the statute of limitations expire, effectively letting Charles Intriago off the hook.

My Committee has been investigating the Intriago case, and has discovered evidence even more disturbing than what I just described to you. Intriago hired a team of high-priced lawyers and investigators to defend the Castro family against the U.S. Government’s investigation of the Castros’ suspected money laundering. To defend the Castros, Intriago and his team gained access to confidential, highly sensitive law enforcement databases. It also appears that they obtained the identities of confidential informants. This work was done at the behest of lawyers personally known by Attorney General Reno. In a case like this, which involves the corruption of the Justice Department and other crucial law enforcement agencies by individuals known to the Attorney General, it is even more important that the Justice Department investigate thoroughly and prosecute responsible individuals.

F. Wen Ho Lee Warrant

As many of us know from the Cox Committee’s work, FBI agents investigating espionage at the Los Alamos laboratory asked for a warrant for a search and wiretap of Wen Ho Lee. The Government Reform Committee has looked into this issue since it became public, and while I cannot share everything that we have learned, I can tell you this much. Justice Department lawyers refused to apply for a warrant, claiming that the agents had not presented them with sufficient evidence. FBI agents asked DOJ lawyers a total of three times for a warrant, and they were turned away each time. The Justice Department refused to go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and ask for a warrant, even though that court has turned down such a request only once in 3,657 times over the last five years.

Although she usually claims that the “buck stops with her,” over the past several weeks, Janet Reno has blamed her advisors, Louis Freeh, and just about everyone but herself for this mistake. I think many people would be willing to give Janet Reno the benefit of the doubt if the Justice Department made just one isolated mistake on a search warrant, but when you begin to look at all of these mistakes next to each other, you begin to see an alarming pattern of neglect and disregard.

G. Leaks

I will provide the Subcommittee with one more example of how the Justice Department cannot conduct a competent investigation of the Clinton Administration. Throughout the campaign finance investigation, Justice Department lawyers have repeatedly leaked sensitive grand jury information which has jeopardized their investigations. These leaks have violated the laws protecting grand jury secrecy and classified information. These leaks have also jeopardized the physical safety of witnesses. Just two months ago, Johnny Chung told the Government Reform Committee about how the day before he was supposed to meet with a suspected Chinese agent, the L.A. Times reported on how he was cooperating with the Justice Department. Although Chung felt like his life had been placed in jeopardy, he continued with the meeting, in an effort to help the prosecutors. Although he was not injured, the prosecutors’ plan to find out if China was pressuring Chung was destroyed.

I have written several letters to the Attorney General, pointing out that her Department is committing these flagrant and illegal leaks. I would like to ask that they be entered into the record. I have never received a response, other than to be assured that leak investigations are underway. If the leak investigations are as successful as Reno campaign finance investigation, I don’t think we should hold our breath.

II. Ways in Which DOJ Has Interfered with the Government Reform Committee’s Investigation

I have just described all of the ways that the Justice Department has botched its own investigation. If the prosecutors aren’t doing their job, there is only one other way that American people can find out what is going on – Congressional oversight. Sadly, the Reno Justice Department has done everything possible to make it difficult for Congress to do its job. The result, at least in the campaign finance scandal, is that guilty parties are getting away with their crimes.

I want to provide the Subcommittee with several examples of how the Justice Department has prevented the Government Reform Committee from getting to the bottom of the campaign finance scandal.

A. “Don’t Talk to Dan Burton”

Perhaps the simplest way of illustrating the Department’s obstructionist tactics is to show you a clip from a recent Nightline with Chuck La Bella [Show Tape]:

 

La Bella: My favorite piece is these two message slips that I got when I was out of my office. At 12:10 on May 20th I got a call from Chairman Burton. Very important, please return the call. At, the same day, 12:10, the same time, it must have been the next phone call, . . . a call from Craig Iscoe who is in the deputy attorney general's office, saying don't talk to Dan Burton. Don't talk to Congressman Burton. So that really says it all. That's Washington in a nutshell.

I don’t know if that’s Washington in a nutshell, but that is the Reno Justice Department in a nutshell.

B. Freeh and La Bella Memos

Shortly after we started our campaign fundraising investigation, it was obvious that an Independent Counsel had to investigate the case. This was a conclusion that I shared with Henry Waxman, and most of the newspapers in the country. It was a conclusion also shared by the two investigators at DOJ with the most knowledge of the case: Louis Freeh and Charles La Bella. As we all know now, both Director Freeh and Mr. La Bella drafted memos in which they strongly urged the Attorney General to follow the law and appoint an Independent Counsel.

After Ms. Reno rejected their conclusions, the Committee subpoenaed the memoranda, so that we could see if she was following sound legal advice. The Attorney General refused to comply with the Committee’s subpoena, and refused to provide any proper legal basis for her decision. In fact, the Attorney General started a high-pressure lobbying campaign to try to get the Committee to back off from holding her in contempt. She and her staff told the members of the Committee that it was unprecedented to subpoena documents like the Freeh and La Bella memos, and that such actions would cause irreparable harm to the Department. Thankfully, the Committee prevailed, and demonstrated that Congress had subpoenaed material exactly like the Freeh and La Bella memos on a number of earlier occasions. We showed that oversight by Congress was helpful, not harmful, to the integrity of DOJ. Therefore, we voted to hold the Attorney General in contempt for failing to comply with the Committee’s subpoena. So that the record is clear in showing that the Justice Department never provided the Committee with a valid legal argument against the Committee’s subpoena, I would like to ask that the Committee’s contempt report be entered in the record.

While the contempt citation did not proceed to the floor, I can tell the Members of the Subcommittee that I was able to read the memos, and they did confirm my conclusion that the Attorney General was covering for the President by failing to appoint an Independent Counsel.

Perhaps the most fitting conclusion to the contempt episode was in January of this year, five months after the Attorney General was held in contempt, and after the danger of floor action had passed. In January, the Attorney General’s new Congressional Liaison admitted to my staff that the Attorney General no longer believed that the Committee’s subpoena was unprecedented. In effect, they admitted that they had been lying to the public for weeks as they campaigned against the Committee’s subpoena. Another triumph for the Clinton spin machine over reality.

C. Department Compliance with Document Requests

As the Committee has been investigating the activities of the Justice Department itself, we have frequently requested information from the Department. We have found first, that the Justice Department responds sporadically to the Committee’s requests, and when it does respond, it takes a liberal view of Rule 6(e) that allows it to redact large amounts of responsive information.

It has usually taken the Justice Department months to comply with the Committee’s document requests. Why? Excuses range from: “we lost your request” to “we can’t find the documents” to the unforgettable claim that a production was delayed because the Associate Deputy Attorney General lacked secretarial help, and had to Bates-stamp hundreds of pages himself.

When the Justice Department has given the Committee documents, they are often heavily redacted pursuant to a legally unsupportable reading of Rule 6(e). The Justice Department claims that their redactions are mandated by Judge Johnson’s recent rulings, but even a cursory review of the Department’s other misleading claims cast their 6(e) position into doubt as well.

D. Immunity

The final example I will give you is how the Justice Department has blocked a number of immunity requests that the Committee has made. The fact of our investigation is that the Committee Democrats will not vote for immunity unless the Justice Department approves it. And, the Justice Department has used this power to keep the Committee from moving forward in its investigation in many areas. The reason that the Justice Department lawyers give is that they have a certain individual under investigation, and that if the Committee grants immunity to a certain witness, it will keep them from bringing a prosecution. That would be a fine theory, if the Justice Department was bringing cases. However, the fact is that most of the people who were obviously involved in criminal activity in the fundraising scandal still haven’t been prosecuted, and when they are, they are either winning in court, or if they lose, they are getting light sentences. If that is the kind of investigation the Justice Department is running, it is more important than ever that the Committee grant immunity to witnesses so that the public can learn what a bad investigation the Justice Department is doing.

Conclusion

I want to thank the Subcommittee for having this hearing. I think when you have all of these Committee Chairmen sit side by side, and offer such similar testimony about the malfeasance of the Justice Department, it is chilling. Today, you have heard evidence that the Reno Justice Department has been carrying our a concerted effort to thwart Congressional oversight, of both the Justice Department itself, and of the entire Clinton-Gore Administration. I can’t offer the Subcommittee all of the answers. As you know, the Government Reform Committee has already held the Attorney General in contempt, and that action does not seem to have changed her ways. But I can tell the Members that the Government Reform Committee would never have obtained any information from the Justice Department without constant, daily pressure. If Congress merely relies on the good faith of this Justice Department, it is a sure recipe for disaster.

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