Charles G. La Bella, a former U.S. Attorney in San Diego, has written an interesting letter to the Senate regarding his experience with Eric Holder, President Obama’s pick for attorney general.

La Bella’s investigation of President Clinton’s 1996 re-election has once again become an issue for Republicans in Congress. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has voiced concerns over whether Holder helped then-Vice President Al Gore by refusing La Bella’s request for an independent counsel to investigate illegal fund-raising. The Senate today delayed a vote on Holder’s nomination because Republicans said they needed more time to question him.

In 1997, La Bella, then the first assistant U.S. Attorney in San Diego, was picked to head the Campaign Financing Task Force investigating the 1996 presidential race. Holder, then the deputy attorney general, was one of the people he reported to, along with Attorney General Janet Reno. He says the message from Holder and Reno was “Follow every lead, and leave no stone unturned.”

At the end of his investigation, La Bella recommended that Reno appoint an independent counsel. Others in the Justice Department said that wasn’t necessary and ultimately, Reno agreed and decided that her department’s own attorneys would handle the investigation. I asked La Bella what Holder’s position was. “I think he probably supported her decision, but he didn’t make the decision,” he said.

In July 1998, shortly before he returned to San Diego to become interim U.S. attorney, La Bella wrote a blistering 94-page report that accused senior Justice officials of engaging in “gamesmanship” to avoid an independent inquiry of a troubling pattern of conduct by President Clinton, Vice President Gore and First Lady Hillary Clinton. La Bella told me that Holder wasn’t the one playing games; attorneys in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section were.

The memo, not surprisingly, stayed a secret until 2000, when someone leaked it to the Los Angeles Times. It stirred a huge outcry from Republicans. Conservative columnist Robert Novak called La Bella a “GOP hero.”

La Bella, now in private practice in San Diego, told me it was Holder who asked him to write the letter. La Bella doesn’t explicitly endorse Holder, but he said their relationship was professional and there were no hard feelings between them. “I clearly think he’s qualified,” La Bella told me. He said he has spoken with Holder only a few times over the years, and La Bella still hasn’t changed his mind. “I still think I’m right,” he said.

— SETH HETTENA

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