Move Grows to Clip Special Counsels' Reach Nonpartisan Commission Calls for Narrowing Independent Counsel Law

Article excerpt

The independent counsel law was never meant to create a zealous office of prosecutors, boring away interminably at executive branch oversight.

By nature, the process of vigorously scouring the actions of those 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 Starr 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 expected once Congress settles the impeachment matter. Commission findings 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 figures 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 administration. 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 no 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 department regulated. 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. …


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