Janet Reno's decision not to seek a special prosecutor to probe Democratic National Committee fund-raising inevitably opens a new set of questions. Did she do it to keep her job? More important, can this matter can be adequately dissected without an outside counsel?
The Justice Department argued, not without merit, that the request for a prosecutor, submitted by congressional Republicans, fell short of the criteria demanded by the special prosecutor law, which is triggered by charges against top officials - the president, vice president, or Cabinet officers. Those currently implicated are lower-level campaign officials.
This is a judgment call, of course, since the top of the ticket was at least indirectly involved in some of the fund-raising events in question. But there's little reason, on the face of it, to view the Justice Department's decision as a cave-in by an attorney general trying to hold on to her job. She has shown backbone in other circumstances where the appointment of special prosecutors, or the expansion of their mandates, has been at stake.
Most crucial is whether Democratic fund-raising practices will get the close examination they deserve. The answer to that is almost certainly "yes." Congressional hearings will soon plunge into the comings, goings, and correspondence of Democratic Party money man John Huang and the Indonesian financiers he once worked for.
The Democratic National Committee has itself asked the Federal Election Commission to scrutinize instances of questionable fund-raising by the party. Already, the DNC has returned more than $1.2 million contributed illegally, or under circumstances where legality was fuzzy.
Finally, Reno's department has a task force looking into campaign-law violations.
Plenty of evidence should come to light, and individuals - including higher officials, if the trail leads their way - should be held accountable. When Americans understand a little better how the Democrats strayed in 1996 in their rush for dollars, they will have even stronger reasons to demand that the whole campaign-finance system be reformed.