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  • Key stories: future of the counsel law

  • Counsels at a Glance

  •   Investigation Veterans Back Counsel Law

    By Edward Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, March 25, 1999; Page A10

    Two veterans of high-profile investigations of presidents urged a Senate committee yesterday to reauthorize the controversial independent counsel law but narrow the scope of future investigations that are triggered by the measure.

    Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel who investigated the Iran-contra scandal of the Reagan administration, and Samuel Dash, who was chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee in the 1970s, defended the law, which they said is needed to maintain public confidence in investigations of high-ranking government officials.

    "The statute is necessary, it has worked well and there really is no alternative," said Dash during testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

    The 1978 law was enacted in the wake of the Watergate scandal, during which President Richard M. Nixon ordered the firing of the first special prosecutor named by the Justice Department to investigate the matter. Designed to shield high-profile investigations from political pressures, the law provides for the appointment of independent counsels by a special three-judge panel. But the law has come under increasing fire, especially from critics of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of President Clinton, and faces an uncertain future. Unless reauthorized by Congress, the law will expire on June 30.

    Walsh, whose seven-year, $37 million investigation of the Iran-contra matter angered many Republicans and also undermined congressional support for the law, said a reauthorized independent counsel law should apply only to the president and attorney general instead of the lengthy list of officials covered by the existing law. Allegations of wrongdoing against other government officials should be investigated by the Justice Department, he said.

    Walsh said future independent counsel investigations should be confined to acts by the president or attorney general while they were in federal office. He also urged the creation of a special "unit" in the Justice Department whose members would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate and who would take over responsibility for appointing independent counsels.

    Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the committee's ranking Democrat, noted that under the Walsh formula, only three of the 20 independent counsel investigations since 1978 would have been authorized. Those were two investigations of former attorney general Edwin Meese that ended with recommendations not to prosecute, and the Iran-contra investigation. Starr's investigation, which initially focused on an Arkansas land deal when Clinton was governor of that state, would not have qualified.

    Dash, who served as Starr's ethics adviser, said he opposed placing the appointment power in the Justice Department but offered his own suggestions for changes in the law. He said the number of officials covered by the law should be narrowed and that in most cases the independent counsel should not be allowed to expand an investigation beyond its original mandate. Dash said he also had serious doubts about the requirement that an independent counsel issue a final report, which he said tended to lengthen investigations.

    Dash was also critical of Attorney General Janet Reno, who supported reauthorization of the law in 1993 but now opposes it.

    "I believe nothing substantive has changed to cause this reversal," he said. "Rather, I believe that the attorney general, the American Bar Association and Common Cause have succumbed to partisan and emotional attacks on the independent counsel and the legislation creating him."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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