Burton's Motives in FBI Probe Questioned

Critics Say Reno Is the Real Target

By Juliet Eilperin Washington Post Staff Writer Saturday, June 2, 2001; Page A04

Dan Burton is back.

The chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, who made headlines by accusing the Clinton administration of all kinds of wrongdoing, receded into the background once President Bill Clinton left office and the controversy over his last-minute pardons died down.

But the Indiana Republican is now delving into more obscure terrain: the nine-year-old case of Joseph Gersten, a flamboyant Miami Democrat who was accused of consorting with prostitutes and using crack cocaine and claims he was unfairly targeted by former attorney general Janet Reno when she was Dade County prosecutor. Democrats are already questioning the purpose of such a probe. Even the committee staff report on the case acknowledges that "upon first consideration, Joseph Gersten's claims appear far-fetched." But Burton is undaunted, arguing that the long-buried case speaks to a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct that threatens to undermine the integrity of the FBI.

"People should have confidence in their law enforcement agencies, including the FBI," Burton said. "And if these atrocities or these mistakes are being made intentionally, that are taking people's liberty away, we need to clean it up." But an attorney for one of three Florida prosecutors who have been summoned to testify before Burton's panel in Miami suggested that Burton has other motives. He said Burton is actually interested in going after Reno, who recently said she may run for governor of Florida and who was a frequent target of the congressman during the Clinton administration.

"I can't imagine why a U.S. committee is conducting an investigation into Janet Reno's office a decade ago," said the attorney, Dan Gelber. "I don't understand what public utility it advances, other than serving a partisan purpose." Gersten's troubles date from April 29, 1992, when he was a Dade County commissioner. Gersten reported his blue Mercedes-Benz had been stolen from outside his Coral Gables home. The next day, Miami police arrested three people -- a pimp and two prostitutes -- riding in Gersten's car. Two of them alleged they had stolen the car from Gersten while he was smoking crack and having sex with another prostitute at a local crack house. Despite passing a drug test, Gersten came under scrutiny by the police and media, and he chose to face contempt-of-court charges rather than be interviewed by police. He served a short time in jail on contempt charges, then promptly left for Australia, where he still lives.

Gersten, who was already under investigation for corruption charges when his car was stolen, denies breaking any laws and says he is the victim of a political vendetta that has dogged him even as he tries to make a new life for himself. "Reno's personal animus came into play and her drive to remove me from public office," Gersten said in a telephone interview yesterday from Sydney. "There had to be an agenda other than Reno's publicly stated agenda." But Florida prosecutors, including Richard D. Gregorie, who was scheduled to testify before the Burton committee, say Gersten has flouted court orders demanding that he return to the state to provide testimony on the case. "Joseph Gersten is a fugitive," Gregorie wrote in his prepared testimony. Gersten disputes that he is a fugitive, arguing the state cannot compel him to return under civil law.

Burton's Democratic counterpart on the committee, Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), took pains to point out that Burton was quick to decry Clinton's decision to pardon financier Marc Rich, who fled to Switzerland in the face of criminal charges. "The hearing appears to be the latest chapter in the committee's witch hunt against Janet Reno," Waxman said in a statement yesterday. "And its location and timing, which follows Ms. Reno's announcement that she is considering running for governor, seems questionable." But Burton said his probe has nothing to do with Reno and instead is focused on ferreting out rogue elements within the FBI. Burton is particularly concerned with why an FBI agent says he cannot remember a teenager telling him that the state's main witness against Gersten promised him $400 from the FBI if he would accuse the Miami politician of murdering a transvestite. The FBI report that mentions the allegation did not surface until last year, prompting Gersten's attorney, Carmen Calzon, to question the local prosecutors' motives.

"If they behaved so ethically and correctly, why was there a cover-up?" she asked. Burton compared the probe to the panel's recent hearing on Joseph Salvati, who served 30 years in jail for a crime he did not commit because the FBI was protecting two organized crime informants. "Our whole objective is to find out why exculpatory evidence was not given out and pursued," Burton said, adding that such evidence did not surface in the Rich case. "This has absolutely nothing to do with Janet Reno. This could have happened in Houston, Texas." Burton's committee has already put out a lengthy report on Gersten's case, which will be voted on once the panel questions three Florida prosecutors who investigated the county commissioner. Gregorie, who has called the staff report "hogwash," questioned why the panel issued a report on the matter without interviewing him or any other prosecutors. Burton's aides said they were merely trying not to drag low-level attorneys into the dispute.

As for Burton, he says he has no plans to back down from controversy in the remaining 18 months before he must relinquish his committee gavel because of term limits. He says he has plans to probe the Food and Drug Administration's policies on vaccines, instances of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government, and an array of other issues. "We're looking at a whole host of things," Burton promised. "My committee has oversight over the entire government." 2001 The Washington Post Company

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