Beverley Lumpkin: Halls of Justice

RENO LOOKS FOR A LEGACY

Just when many Justice employees thought it was time to start coasting toward the end of this administration and the beginning of the next, Janet Reno has started holding meetings of her top staff, demanding lists of “priorities” that still need to be accomplished between now and January 20.

One aide said people were groaning because her list of priorities was lengthy — the latest count was 35 items — which, he pointed out, means nothing is a priority when everything is. Also the items listed were general and unfocused — for example: “drugs,” “guns,” or “courts.”

One official remarked sardonically they could probably at least narrow the last down to “federal courts.”

Another top official, when asked about the priorities, immediately replied, “oh, the legacy horse****?” But he believes that what Reno actually has in mind is whittling down the broad categories to a few doable tasks.

He thinks, for example, if there’s a proposal or project that’s already about two-thirds done, then it makes sense for her to push to finish the job before she leaves. Even that will be difficult, though, because the average bureaucrat’s attitude this fall will be “haven’t you people gone yet?”

Another aide believes the main purpose of the exercise is to leave a blueprint for the incoming Attorney General to point out the most urgent areas requiring attention; “to give them the benefit of our insight.” However, that’s the sort of thing usually done by an incoming administration’s transition team; it’s hard to imagine that Reno’s successor will be as eager to accept her advice as she is to give it.

Reno herself at her weekly briefing explained, “What I’ve tried to do is to take the issues that we have been working on, to outline what still remains to be done, and to chart what we can do in these four and a half, five months left, so that I don’t waste the people’s time.”

CARNIVORE REVIEW EVOLVES

Every time we ask about the outside review of Carnivore’s source code, we get a new version of what’s going on.

Last week we learned for the first time it’s supposed to be a two-step process. First, an academic — one or more persons chosen by the FBI — examines the source code to verify and validate it is what the FBI says it is. Then a panel of interested business, computer and privacy experts reviews the academic’s findings.

Now we find out Reno has involved Steve Colgate, the top career guy in the department, and someone she usually turns to for handling the toughest problems. In fact, she values him so highly that she recently bestowed upon him the Exceptional Service Award, the much-coveted highest award in the department.

She revealed she’s asked Colgate to “work with the FBI to select an independent entity” for the review. That suggests the FBI on its own had not come up with a satisfactory “entity.” When reporters questioned whether this whole process was not taking a long time to get off the ground, Reno agreed. A few minutes later, when asked if she was confident the process was moving faster, she vowed, “I’m going to check when I leave here.”

SCHADENFREUDE IN THE WEN HO LEE CASE

While the criminal case proceeds apace — with important pretrial hearings set for August 14 through 16 — the civil lawsuit filed by Lee and his wife Sylvia against the government for unlawful leaks has been put on hold. But a kindly government official recently brought to my attention one particularly interesting charge in the civil complaint:

“Plaintiffs are informed and believe that some of the unlawful leaks of private information pertaining to Plaintiffs originated from an FBI official known as ‘the Fatman.’”

Frankly, few of us are angels, and this charge has occasioned expressions of excessively unseemly glee in more than a few Justice officials.

For Bob Bucknam, Louie Freeh’s longtime chief-of-staff, loyal factotum and spear-carrier, is in fact quite decidedly rotund.

Not only that — he’s generally regarded as the most able leaker in the FBI, some would say within the entire Justice Department. He is particularly regarded as responsible for some of the most damaging anti-Reno leaks in the campaign finance fiasco.

Nobody envies the poor FBI counsel who will have to draft the response to this particular charge.

FOLLOWING THE MONEY IN NEW JERSEY

It is certainly true, as the New York Times recently reported, that prosecutors are now examining the role New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli’s personal and campaign staff may have played in the numerous cases of illegal contributions made to his 1996 campaign.

But it is far from clear yet, according to Justice officials, that anything will come of it. It’s basically a no-brainer, once the task force had rolled up all the illegal donors, to follow the trail into the office and see what if anything the candidate’s staff may have known about the violations.

A source close to Torricelli says prosecutors still have not identified any problem with anybody in the senator’s office or on his campaign staff.

The senator, who has been told he’s not a target, is cooperating with the investigation, according to the source.

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