Queen of Schmooze or Queen of Bribes?

Janet Reno's decision to request an independent counsel for Labor Secretary Alexis Herman attracted the same TV news buzz as other Cabinet probes: almost nothing. The May 11 decision drew a lead story from ABC's World News Tonight (where investigative ace Brian Ross first broke the story in January.) As with Ross's scoop in January, the other networks were unimpressed: CBS gave it 26 seconds and NBC kept it to 18 seconds.

Laurent Yene charged that when Herman was a White House employee, she accepted cash from him in exchange for helping his clients with government business. With the exception of Ross, the other coverage questioned the cost of independent counsels.

Thirty minutes before the story broke, CNN's Inside Politics was already piling on doubts. Anchor Judy Woodruff began: "At a time when many Americans are uneasy about the work of independent counsels, and the Clinton administration is downright fed up, another counsel appointment may be in the offing." Woodruff's second story was a report on how much the counsels have cost. [See box.]

On ABC's Good Morning America the next day, host Kevin Newman asked legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin: "I can hear people out there saying 'What? Another one?' I mean Brian Ross reported it's already cost something like $63, $73 million for the previous six. How much is this going to cost?" (This is not the way TV covers the National Endowment for the Arts, whose $100 million budget is pitched as "38 cents a year" for each American.)

In addition to the allegations the counsel will investigate, Herman's record of ethical lapses has opened several avenues of investigation the networks ignored:

The opening of the new Ronald Reagan Building in Washington had a Herman angle, since she made more than $500,000 on the project. 

As White House liaison, Herman helped set up several White House fundraising coffees, including a session with bankers featuring the President and the Treasury Secretary. This revelation was briefly covered by CBS, CNN, and PBS, perhaps because Republicans held up confirmation hearings for a couple of months.

Ron Brown friend Nolanda Hill charged Herman was also involved in Brown's trade missions, which carried a high number of major DNC donors.

On February 9, 1997, the Los Angeles Times reported Clinton aide Harold Ickes steered would-be contributors to "a supposedly nonpartisan voter registration group that in reality has close ties to the Democratic Party." Herman helped arrange a White House reception which honored the group, "Vote Now '96," for turning out minorities. It's illegal for federal workers to raise campaign funds.

The April 16, 1997 USA Today reported Herman opened the White House doors for her friend Vanessa Weaver, who "brought along clients or others she was trying to sign up, or she arranged through Herman for them to participate in prestigious White House events."

Many of these stories came before Herman (dubbed "the Queen of Schmooze" by NBC's Gwen Ifill) was confirmed as Labor Secretary on April 30, 1997. So where were the network ethics watchdogs? - Tim Graham

CORRECTION: Last week, Stuart Taylor's
American Lawyer Iraqgate expose was wrongly dated. The correct date is November 1994.