Independent Counsels

Article excerpt

Long before anyone knew about Monica Lewinsky, the independent counsel law was under fire. Democratic defenders of President Clinton were angered by Kenneth Starr's probe back when "Whitewater" was a headline. Republicans blasted the system during Iran-Contra.

Now the law has taken a direct hit with the acquittal last week of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. The jury rejected multiple charges that Mr. Espy had illegally taken gifts from companies with an interest in his department's policies. The charges were brought by independent counsel Donald Smaltz.

Mr. Smaltz argues, with some force, that his investigation garnered more than $11 million in penalties from companies that made gifts to Mr. Espy and sent a signal that such currying of official favor won't be tolerated. But the prosecutor spent $17 million over four years and in the end had nothing that would stick against his main target. Espy, decrying his ordeal at the hands of Smaltz, wants to be the lead witness when Congress considers extending the Ethics in Government Act next year. That law, passed in the wake of Watergate, provides for highly autonomous independent counsels who can't be fired by the executive branch. Indeed, their freedom to spend time and money, and to expand their mandates, underlies a growing consensus that the law should be overhauled, or simply scrapped. …