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  •   Looking Inward at Justice

    By Roberto Suro
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, March 17, 1999; Page A25

    When the 1996 presidential campaign spurred demands that an independent counsel investigate fund-raising abuses, Attorney General Janet Reno insisted on assigning the job to the Justice Department's own anti-corruption unit instead.

    Within months, problems with the performance of the Public Integrity Section forced her to reconsider.

    Boxloads of papers were never fully examined. Key intelligence information was mishandled. Important witnesses went uninterviewed. When all this obliged her to make embarrassing admissions to Congress, a furious Reno transferred the investigation to a senior prosecutor brought in from California.

    Now, 18 months after she abruptly removed it from handling the campaign finance probe, Reno is promoting a plan to grant the Public Integrity Section more power and responsibility than ever before.

    In congressional testimony today, Reno--who five years ago urged Congress to reauthorize the independent counsel law--is expected to recommend giving the section most of the duties now performed by independent counsels, department officials said.

    With the statute set to expire July 1, Reno is said to believe that Public Integrity's career attorneys should be allowed to handle all allegations of wrongdoing against Cabinet members, top White House aides, political party leaders--almost everyone currently covered by the independent counsel process. She would resort to a "special prosecutor" only in situations involving the president and vice president or other highly sensitive matters, and, unlike independent counsels, those prosecutors would be accountable to the attorney general.

    Reno will testify that the independent counsels suffer from a fatal lack of accountability and that the logical cure is for Justice, with its internal checks and balances, to handle all but the most exceptional investigations of official corruption, sources said. Under current law, the Public Integrity Section takes the first look at allegations involving top officials before the attorney general decides whether to seek an independent counsel.

    "I think the Public Integrity Section's fully capable of handling any of the matters that we give to them," said Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., adding that the 28-lawyer unit could be "bolstered" with additional prosecutors to take on the huge task of investigating and prosecuting matters now handled by independent counsels.

    Amid widespread disillusionment with the independent counsel process, the Public Integrity alternative has rapidly gained favor in many quarters, even among those who argued in the past that Justice faces inevitable conflicts of interest when investigating members of the administration. Senior Democrats and Republicans have announced they are prepared to consider granting the department this sensitive mission and advocacy groups have begun developing plans for implementing it.

    For example, Common Cause, one of the first and most staunch proponents of the independent counsel law, last week unveiled a proposal also built around the Public Integrity Section. The Common Cause plan, backed by Archibald Cox, the first Watergate special prosecutor, and Harvard Law School professor Philip Heymann, a veteran Justice Department official, would erect "firewalls" around the section by allowing the head of the criminal division, who supervises the section, to operate with almost complete independence from the attorney general and other political appointees.

    Created in 1976 as a post-Watergate reform, the Public Integrity Section quickly gained a reputation as a giant-killer, overseeing the prosecution of corrupt officials except in the highest reaches of the executive branch, which are now handled by independent counsels. Starting with the 1980 Abscam sting that exposed Capitol Hill bribery and continuing through the 1991 conviction of U.S. District Judge Robert F. Collins for selling leniency to a drug smuggler, Public Integrity regularly pursued cases where federal law enforcement had rarely ventured before.

    Along the way, the section developed as a tightly knit, effective cadre of prosecutors. But by the early 1990s, most of its best-known lawyers had moved on and the section had fallen on hard times, several observers said. Now, aggressive U.S. attorney's offices in places such as New York and New Orleans are prosecuting many of the public corruption cases, and Public Integrity has become more of a policy-setting body.

    "For several years now it has been a slower, more cautious place than it was in the old days," said a veteran federal prosecutor. The problem lies with "an obsession with consistency," said another Justice official. "Instead of breaking new ground, their concern is with making sure that every case follows the same criteria."

    Others disagree. "Public Integrity is still very well-equipped in every way to handle major prosecutions and it is regularly assisting U.S. attorneys in bringing important cases to trial," said James M. Cole, who served in Public Integrity until 1992 and is now a Washington defense attorney.

    Even the section's critics acknowledge that one of its most often-cited weaknesses, a penchant for consistency, is a powerful safeguard against partisanship. Regardless of an official's party, the section ensures that investigations are conducted according to the same procedures and that the law is interpreted the same way.

    "With the types of crimes that Public Integrity is handling, you have to have prosecutors with a depth of knowledge and sensitivity to a myriad number of issues in order to reach the right judgments," said defense lawyer Nancy Luque, who has fought a number of cases against the unit.

    When it came to the campaign finance investigation, however, the section's strengths seemed to become drawbacks. "They tried to follow precedents in an investigation that was unlike any other before it," said a Justice official familiar with the difficult early stages of the effort.

    Public Integrity faced a multitude of potential targets not clearly linked to one another and election laws laden with gray areas. Moreover, the sensitive question of Chinese government activity loomed in the shadows, and at every stage attorneys had to consider the peculiar rules of the independent counsel process, which require them to pull back before inquiring too much about people close to the White House.

    As a result, after 11 months' work, so little had been accomplished that Reno felt obliged to call in Charles G. LaBella, a federal prosecutor from San Diego, to take over the campaign finance probe. His efforts soon suffered some of the same problems and he left after less than a year, recommending that the whole issue be turned over to an independent counsel.

    In a letter to Reno, LaBella described an "adversarial" relationship with the section's supervisors, officials said. He complained that Public Integrity's mistakes left him with a cold trail to follow.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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