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Campaign Probe: Still Needed

Americans may be tired of independent counsels, and the law allowing them is likely to be altered or junked when it runs out this spring. But there should have been one more probe of possible executive-branch wrongdoing: into the questionable fund-raising that marred the 1996 presidential elections.

The last opportunity for such a probe disappeared last week. Attorney General Janet Reno decided against appointing an independent counsel to look into the activities of former White House aide Harold Ickes. Mr. Ickes was suspected of lying to Congress concerning pressures applied by the administration to the Diamond Walnut company. At the time, the company was being struck by the Teamsters Union, a big contributor to Democratic Party coffers.

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As with earlier decisions regarding possible campaign-related wrongdoing by President Clinton and Vice President Gore, Ms. Reno found that no specific crime had been committed, hence no counsel was called for.

From a narrow perspective, her findings may have been defensible. But they overlooked substantial evidence of wider wrongdoing, ranging from acceptance of contributions from poorly checked, often foreign, sources, to the use of funds for purposes prohibited under current campaign-finance law. A probe in any of these cases would likely have opened a door the administration desperately wanted to keep shut.

But it's a door that might have shed needed light on a rotten campaign-finance system, exploited by both parties and badly in need of reform.

That light is still needed. It may yet come through ongoing probes in Congress and in Reno's own department. It's ironic that an attorney general who so liberally used the independent counsel law in other cases spurned it in an area where it might have done great public good.

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