Beverley Lumpkin: Halls of Justice


Justice Department officials were frankly aghast at the news that Independent Counsel Robert Ray has impaneled a new grand jury to consider whether to charge the president with lying or obstruction of justice once he leaves office.

Some were saying, “Why do this at all?” Others were wondering, “Why does this have to be done before the election?” But all were saying, “Why leak this information the day of Al Gore’s nomination acceptance speech?” (I should point out that no one was willing to credit journalistic enterprise, rather than political skullduggery, with the timing.)

But one source familiar with Ray’s thinking pointed out the assembling of the new grand jury pretty much follows his timetable. He made clear on March 19 on ABCNEWS’ This Week that indictment was a possibility. He has subsequently set forth a timetable — to which he has, remarkably, adhered — for the release of his conclusions on the investigations into the FBI files and the travel office matter.

Due in September is his Whitewater report, and then the only thing remaining is Monica Lewinsky. Ray has made plain to associates he doesn’t want to dilly-dally around in January; so to be able to make a decision then, he must have the benefit of several months’ worth of testimony beforehand.

No one with whom I have spoken could say whether Ray has any new evidence in addition to that turned up by Ken Starr’s grand jury, most of which of course ended up in his report. I should also add that we have known for several months that Ray, along with the Justice Department’s campaign finance task force, is investigating the White House’s failure to produce all relevant e-mails to the many investigators who had subpoenaed or requested them. It’s unclear at this point whether this new grand jury will be examining those questions along with the Lewinsky matter.


Senate Republicans are crying crocodile tears for Vice President Al Gore, pointing out how unfair it is to him for Attorney General Janet Reno to have postponed her decision on whether there should be a special outside counsel to investigate allegations that he lied to prosecutors during a deposition last April.

But they are doubtless correct in stating that Reno’s decision —which all (including yours truly) expect to be against an outside counsel—- will open up a firestorm that can only do further damage to both Reno and Gore.

Even though she will be closing down one part of the investigation, it will revive the allegations at an unfortunate time for the vice president. And Republicans on Capitol Hill will be only too happy to keep the fires burning, demanding documents and explanations.

We now anticipate Reno will be making her decision either next week or the following week. When I asked one official if that would be just in time to deflate any post-convention bounce for Gore, he winced noticeably.

As to the substance of the decision, there is nobody, not one single solitary soul, in Main Justice who agrees with task force chief Robert Conrad’s recommendation to appoint a special counsel to investigate Gore.

You’ll recall the gist of Conrad’s thesis is that Gore lied to him about the HsiLai Temple fund-raiser. This conclusion is based largely on the fact that during the deposition Gore was hostile, defensive and sweating. And Conrad is arguing that he as task force chief cannot investigate Gore himself because he might have to be a witness as to Gore’s demeanor.

This strikes Justice officials as bizarre, because most prosecutors consider the reason FBI agents participate in interviews is so they can testify if necessary. The FBI, of course, agrees with Conrad on the need for an outside counsel.

One top official told me that he had disagreed with former Justice official Chuck LaBella’s call for an independent counsel, but he could at least understand his argument.

But, he said, he just doesn’t “get this at all; this isn’t even close!”

This official regards Conrad’s argument on demeanor to be “strange” and his substantive argument unpersuasive. The official maintained that Conrad cannot show that anybody told Gore anything definitive about the event being a fund-raiser; all he has is some staff, contradicted by other staff, having conversations about whether it was a fund-raiser.


Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder leaves next Monday with two staffers for a week-and-a-half long trip to South Africa that is so jam-packed with events nobody could ever mistake it for a boondoggle. There is virtually no time for shopping or safaris, although a few hours’ visit to a game park has been tentatively penciled in.

The primary purpose for the trip is to address the International Association of Chiefs of Police, having their first sub-Saharan conference in Durban. Holder, the highest-ranking African-American law enforcement official, will be talking on bridging the gaps between police officers and communities (fondly referred to here as community policing).

There will be a bi-national agreement signed with South Africa on sharing training and investigative skills; and a visit to a training camp for the new elite police force known as the Scorpions. The Scorpions will specialize in investigating public corruption, organized crime and money laundering and will cross-train at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.; their first class just graduated this summer.

Holder and his sidekicks will also visit Robben Island, the notorious prison where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years; a residential home for kids with AIDS; an organization that deals with domestic violence; the offices of a new Web site to share information on missing children; and the program run by the Biehl Foundation. The foundation was set up by the parents of Amy Biehl, the young American woman brutally murdered in South Africa seven years ago. There will also be numerous official meetings and receptions.

Traveling with Holder will be one of his aides, Deborah Smalover, and the much-loved head of public affairs, Myron Marlin. Marlin is a notorious workaholic who had to do some fast talking to explain to his fiancée why he was canceling a few days of vacation to undertake this arduous trip instead. We were all bemused and amused to learn that he has also been designated protocol officer for this mission, and so immediately gave him much false information about which forks to use when.


For those (few) of you who share my obsession about dealing with the DNA database backlog, there was a little good news this week.

Justice, through its National Institute of Justice, doled out more than $7 million to seven states to enable them to attack their backlog of unanalyzed samples taken from convicted offenders. Once the samples are analyzed, the data will be entered both in the individual states’ databases, and in the FBI’s nationwide system, CODIS. The department said another 14 states will soon be receiving additional grants for the same purpose. The current grants will take care of 145,783 backlogged samples out of an estimated 750,000 nationwide.

Beverley Lumpkin has covered the Justice Department for ABCNEWS for 14 years. Halls of Justice appears every Friday.