"Where Do I Go to Get My Reputation Back?"(subpoena of Hillary Rodham Clinton Focuses Attention on the Grand Jury process)(Cover Story)

By Crabtree, Susan | Insight on the News, February 19, 1996 | Go to article overview

"Where Do I Go to Get My Reputation Back?"(subpoena of Hillary Rodham Clinton Focuses Attention on the Grand Jury process)(Cover Story)


Crabtree, Susan, Insight on the News


Grand juries have enormous power to destroy the careers and finances of people they indict. Will Hillary Rodham Clinton be the latest victim of what some have called the modern-day star chamber?

When Hillary Rodham Clinton walked through the federal courthouse door marked "Grand Jury," her usual entourage of aides and Secret Service agents could not accompany her; even her lawyer had to remain at bay in the hall. For the first time in history, a first lady was forced to face a barrage of questions of incredible political and legal consequence - alone, in the prosecutor's domain and on his terms.

When she agreed to testify, the first lady remained free of any legal prosecution: She was a witness, not the target of independent counsel Kenneth W. Start's investigation. But, as many public figures have experienced, testifying before a grand jury is a judicial crap shoot: The dice read either innocent or indictment. The grave threat of an indictment, even if a subsequent trial results in acquittal, is that it smears a person's reputation and can damage a career irrevocably.

"Where do I go to get my reputation back?" asked Ray Donovan, secretary of labor under President Reagan, after he was indicted but subsequently acquitted of charges that he defrauded the New York City Transit Authority of millions.

The grand jury has its roots in 12th-century English law, but it was created by the authors of the Bill of Rights as a check on the ability of overzealous prosecutors to harass the innocent for political reasons. The this day, lawyers and judges claim an almost mythical faith in the grand jury, but critics argue that in fact it has become a vehicle for the very abuse it was created to avoid. They attack the institution as an anachronism, a waste of money, a tool of government oppression and even a modern star chamber.

Pat McGuigan, a key adviser on judicial appointments to President Reagan, argues that the grand jury repeatedly has demonstrated its potential for abuse since use of the so-called independent counsel was developed in the wake of Watergate. "Former Attorney General Ed Meese was the biggest victim of this constitutional monstrosity," McGuigan tells Insight.

Meese, attorney general in the Reagan administration, suffered more than his share of legal problems. Although he was indicted on charges of financial mismanagement and acquitted in a subsequent trial, Meese retains his respect for the grand jury as a vital mechanism to obtain sworn testimony. Though he refuses to discuss his own experience, Meese says that prosecutors sometimes have overstepped their bounds, especially in the indictment of former Interior Secretary Jim Watt, who in 1983 resigned when he faced charges that he hindered an investigation of a Reagan-era scandal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "There was no basis for that indictment," says Meese. "Ultimately, he had to plead guilty to a misdemeanor so that the independent counsel could save face."

Although most claim to hold the process in high esteem, lawyers long have joked that any prosecutor worth his salt could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. Research by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, provides statistical weight to this claim and demonstrates that grand juries usually act as rubber stamps for whatever is on the prosecutor's agenda.

TRAC found that in 1991 federal prosecutors won the support of grand juries in more than 99.9 percent of their secret presentations. In that year, 785 federal grand juries were convened, hearing witnesses and receiving information on about 25,945 matters that the prosecutors argued should result in federal criminal charges. The jurors voted against the prosecutor in only 16 of the cases presented to them.

Some grand juries, however, have displayed an independent spirit, mistrusting the prosecutor's information and breaking their code of secrecy. A 1989 Denver grand jury heard testimony about the Rocky Flats nuclear power plant's alleged violations of environmental law.

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