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web posted April 3, 2000

Burton: Special counsel needed to investigate White House e-mail controversy

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton on March 27 called on Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint a special counsel to investigate the ongoing White House electronic mail controversy.

But the Justice Department response said the request may be moot since Independent Counsel Robert Ray, the successor to Kenneth Starr, is already looking into the issue.

Burton, R-Indiana, said the Justice Department is both investigating the issue and defending its conduct in the matter. He wrote to the attorney general: "Ms. Reno, you cannot use the Campaign Financing Task Force, supervised by yourself, to investigate yourself and the Justice Department lawyers who helped keep the e-mails from being produced to Congress, Independent Counsels, and your own Campaign Financing Task Force."

The task force has begun a criminal investigation into whether the White House has obstructed justice by its handling of the e-mail matter. The White House only recently informed Congress that a computer glitch had prevented it from producing thousands of e-mails under subpoena by congressional and Justice Department investigators.

In his eight-page letter to Reno, Burton wrote that a special counsel "should be completely independent and have no current ties to the Justice Department."

Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin did not flatly reject Burton's request, but indicated the questions Burton is after are already being looked into by an outside investigator.

"The independent counsel has an investigation into the pending allegations as does the Justice Campaign Finance Task Force, but we're currently reviewing the committee's letter to see if yet another investigator is needed," Marlin said.

The e-mail issue arose from a problem in the White House's automated record management system -- known as ARMS -- which resulted in the improper scanning, logging and archiving of incoming, external e-mails to nearly 500 White House personnel, many of them high-ranking.

Those e-mails subsequently were not handed over in response to subpoenas by Congress, the Office of Independent Counsel or the Justice Department.

White House officials acknowledged the week before at a Government Reform Committee hearing that they asked contract staffers not to discuss the computer problems, but rejected claims that those staffers had been threatened.

The e-mails, which some have estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, may pertain to ongoing investigations by Congress, the Office of Independent Counsel and the Justice Department, and may have included information regarding former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, as well as campaign finance matters that may involve Vice President Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

The White House has turned over more than 7 000 pieces of e-mail in response to subpoenas in a series of legal matters. Most of those who testified in front of Burton recently said they did not believe the problem was actually caused by the White House, nor did the White House tell them to destroy any e-mails.

"We didn't know enough about what was going on to be able to say that the White House was obstructing anything," said John Spriggs, a Northrop Grumman senior engineer for electronic mail.

White House officials also acknowledged that a second, separate computer problem affecting the Office of the Vice President may have resulted in thousands of e-mail messages escaping the investigative reach of Congress, the Justice Department and the Office of the Independent Counsel.

Although the contents of those e-mail messages are not known, they could include correspondence regarding the vice president's fund-raising activities, which have been the subject of an investigation by both Congress and the Justice Department task force. There is no indication that Gore had any knowledge of the problem.

That separate glitch may still be unresolved, and may have occurred earlier than the problem with the incoming White House e-mail -- which White House officials say struck between August 1996 and June 1998.

New York, Brooklyn museum settle funding dispute

The Brooklyn Museum of Art's dispute with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been resolved, according to a court order released on March 27.

In a wide-ranging settlement, the museum and the city have agreed to drop their separate legal actions against one another, stemming from last year's controversial "Sensation" exhibit.

"Everything is being dropped," said Floyd Abrams, attorney for the museum. "There is no more litigation about this."

In November, the museum scored a key victory when a federal judge ordered the city to restore public funding to it. U.S. District Court Judge Nina Gershon then enjoined the city from "taking any steps to inflict any punishment, retaliation, discrimination or sanction of any kind."

The settlement makes that injunction permanent, protecting city-government funding that amounts to a $7 million annual subsidy.

The settlement also forces the city to suspend its effort to evict the museum from the city-owned building it leases. And, according to the court order, Giuliani has agreed to include an additional $5.8 million in the city's executive budget for physical improvements to the museum's building.

"Today's result is overdue," Abrams said at an afternoon news conference. "Mayor Giuliani should have never started this destructive fight with the First Amendment and should surely have agreed to stop it long ago."

The attorney representing the mayor and the city said he was "gratified" by the settlement.

"It's time to end the hostilities on both sides, in terms of court proceedings," said Michael Hess, Corporation Counsel for the City of New York, at a news conference.

But Hess said he does not view the settlement as a victory for anyone. And he said, the mayor was able to raise legitimate concerns about the exhibit.

"Part of that exhibit was obviously religion-bashing," Hess said. "And the mayor took exception to that and rightly so.

"The issue of whether taxpayer money needs, and should, be used for a religion-bashing kind of exhibit like that is a legitimate legal issue to be litigated. Maybe, some day, it will come up to the Supreme Court and we'll see what they might say on an issue like that."

Last fall, the city, under the direction of Giuliani, had withheld monthly payments to the museum because of Giuliani's objections to the show's painting, "The Holy Virgin Mary" by British artist Chris Ofili. He used elephant dung and images of female genitalia in that work.

Giuliani maintained the painting desecrated religious beliefs of a substantial portion of the community.

Judge rules president violated Kathleen Willey's privacy

A federal judge ruled on March 29 that President Clinton and several top aides violated the privacy rights of presidential accuser Kathleen Willey by releasing private letters she had sent to Clinton.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered White House lawyers to answer questions they previously refused in a lawsuit brought by the conservative legal group Judicial Watch, which has filed numerous suits against the Clinton administration.

"This court finds that the plaintiffs have presented facts that establish a criminal violation of the Privacy Act," Lamberth ruled.

The judge added that evidence in the case "established that the president had the requisite intent for committing a criminal violation of the Privacy Act" when he authorized the release of the letters in the midst of the criminal investigation that led to his impeachment and acquittal. The White House released Mrs. Willey's letters the morning after her dramatic 1998 TV appearance in which she alleged the president made an unwanted sexual advance next to the Oval Office in 1993.

Presidential aides used the letters to cast doubt on Mrs. Willey's allegations, saying the letters showed she remained friendly with Clinton after the alleged incident. Clinton has denied any wrongdoing.

Lamberth's ruling comes in a lawsuit over the White House gathering of hundreds of FBI background files on Republican appointees. The judge allowed Judicial Watch wide latitude in exploring the issue of whether the White House routinely gathered and released damaging information about its political opponents.

As part of the discovery, the group was allowed to ask extensive written questions about the release of the Willey letters even though Willey is not a party to the suit. Presidential aides refused to answer some of those questions, prompting Lamberth's ruling. Lamberth held that the White House was informed by one of the judge's own rulings in 1998, nine months before the release of the Willey letters, that the White House was covered by the Privacy Act.

The White House maintains "that the president did not act willfully because the Department of Justice has, in the past, taken the position that the White House office is not subject to the Privacy Act," the judge noted.

"This court, however, has already rejected this argument in this same case," Lamberth added. "When the president and EOP (executive office of the president) released the letters they were fully aware of this court's ruling that the Privacy Act was applicable and that the disclosure of the letters was therefore prohibited."

In addition to Clinton, Lamberth said three top presidential aides -- adviser Bruce Lindsey, former White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff and former Deputy Counsel Cheryl Mills -- may have violated the Privacy Act.

The ruling notes the three aides "had their discussions about whether the letters should be released" and then communicated with the president about the issue. Clinton then authorized the release of the letters, the judge said.

HUD Secretary says Smith & Wesson could be conspiracy target

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has asked the Justice Department to investigate reports of a possible "conspiracy" of gun manufacturers to punish Smith & Wesson for the company's decision to sign an accord to produce safer guns in an effort to avoid government lawsuits.

Local, state and federal government officials who are part of the Communities for Safer Guns Coalition met the week before last and reported anecdotal evidence that might "suggest a conspiracy among manufacturers to put Smith & Wesson out of business," said HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo at a news conference on March 31.

"You can't pressure a company or try to put a company out of business as a conspiracy of other companies," he said.

Justice spokeswoman Gina Talamona confirmed the department is "reviewing the matter."

Smith & Wesson, the nation's largest gun manufacturer, signed an agreement March 17 to install gun locks and other child-safety devices on all guns, and to introduce "smart-gun" technology in all newly designed handguns. The company also agreed to impose marketing and distribution rules on retailers who carry its wares, as ways to keep guns from children and criminals.

Smith & Wesson also promised to put a hidden, second serial number on handguns to make them easier to trace.

In exchange, the city governments signing the settlement agreed to drop the lawsuits they filed against the company to recover costs associated with gun violence, and the federal government agreed not to file its own lawsuit.

Cuomo said the gun industry and the National Rifle Association were surprised at the settlement, and are "panicked" that tougher safety rules are on the way.

Besides the federal government, Cuomo said the attorneys general in Connecticut, Maryland and New York are looking into the reports as well. The possibility of a boycott was first reported by The New York Times last week.

Cuomo also used the news conference to rally consumer and government support for Smith & Wesson and other manufacturers who may choose to participate in the responsibility standards outlined in the accord.

Nearly 70 jurisdictions have now added the standards to contract specifications when placing bids for police weapons. Cuomo said police sales comprise about 25 to 30 percent of the annual market for new guns.

Smith & Wesson's decision to sign the agreement was criticized by the NRA and other gun groups. Two other gun manufacturers, Browning and Glock Inc., have declined to sign onto the accord.

Glock refused to sign on because the company wanted the right to make its business decisions without any interference from the government, said Paul Jannuzzo, Glock vice president and general counsel.

Browning is a defendant in a number of lawsuits filed by cities and counties on the grounds that gun makers and dealers do not take the necessary precautions to ensure the firearms they sell are safe.

"In my estimation, (Smith & Wesson) has been politically drug into giving away their own rights, the rights of everyone in the industry, the rights of licensed gun dealers and the rights of law-abiding gun owners," said Rich Bauter, vice president of Browning.

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