The independent counsel law was never meant to create a zealous
office of prosecutors, boring away interminably at executive branch
By nature, the process of vigorously scouring the actions of
covered by the law - the president and 48 other officials - is a
contentious, often ugly one.
Even more than claims that independent counsels like Kenneth
and Donald Smaltz are overzealous, a nonpartisan commission report
finds the statute to be dangerously tilting the balance of power
between the president and Congress.
Observers say it's the first salvo in the soon-to-heat-up debate
over whether to abolish or amend the independent counsel law as its
five year renewal period nears.
As the United States emerges from an era fraught with scandal
allegations and epic investigations, an avalanche of scholarship and
public opinion on how to best provide executive oversight is
once Congress settles the impeachment matter.
Those getting an early start on the debate are not mincing words.
"Terminate the statute," says Kenneth Thompson, who served as
commission coordinator for a who's who of legal and political
examining the statute.
The blue-ribbon panel also includes former Sen. Howard Baker (R)
of Tennessee, who served as chief of staff to President Ronald
Reagan; Griffin Bell, attorney general during the Carter
administration; and William Barr, his counterpart in the Bush
Conducting its work at the Miller Center at the University of
Virginia in Charlottesville, the commission recommends replacing the
current statute with narrower law.
"It's a no man's land in terms of the Constitution," Mr. Thompson
says of the statute.
In the report, Mr. Baker suggests the oversight function be
limited only to the president, vice president, and attorney general.
It would be up to the attorney general to name outside counsel and
the Justice Department to investigate charges of wrongdoing.
Judge Bell also criticizes the statute's mandate of filing a final
report detailing the investigation and explaining expenses. But Bell
believes the lengthy reports "can suggest guilt," even if there is
indictment in a case.
Espy acquittal fuels debate
The need to address the issue was buttressed again last week with
the overwhelming exoneration of Mike Espy. The former Agriculture
secretary was cleared of all 30 counts brought against him by
independent counsel Smaltz.
Smaltz spent $17 million prosecuting Mr. Espy for his acceptance
of gratuities, such as football and air tickets, from entities his
Smaltz's recent comments regarding the Espy case, that "the actual
indictment of a public official may in fact be as great a deterrent
as a conviction of that official," added to the zealous image earned
by independent counsels. …