Susan McDougal, resplendent in a black pantsuit, hugged Julie Hiatt Steele, her weary comrade-in-defiance of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Former agriculture secretary Mike Espy, victorious after a four-year independent counsel investigation, sat a few feet away, along with lawyer Robert S. Bennett, another grizzled veteran of the special prosecutor wars. And there was former Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger, like a ghost of government defendants past, wearing a Mickey Mouse tie that seemed strangely appropriate to the occasion.
The Independent Counsel Act died without mourners in July, and no one in Congress seems eager to bring it back to life. But yesterday, House Democrats invited some of the act's best-known victims to Capitol Hill, essentially to trample on its grave. Their stories probably won't affect any legislation, but as political drama, they certainly raised the bar for oversight hearings of the House Judiciary commercial and administrative law subcommittee.
"I must say, this is a little bit strange," said subcommittee Chairman George W. Gekas (Pa.), the only Republican to attend the hearing. "Everyone here should recognize that this question is moot."
That may have been true, but the tales of prosecutorial excess still made for compelling theater. Espy testified first, declaring that he didn't want to start a "pity party." Then he explained how independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz had spent $21 million, subpoenaed a mountain of documents that included his high school transcripts, grilled an army of witnesses that included his old girlfriends, indicted his brother, gave watches engraved with Espy's name to the counsel staff--and finally, after Espy's acquittal, declared that "the mere indictment of a public official has as much deterrent value as the conviction of a public official."
Espy never testified at his illegal gratuities trial, but yesterday, he poured out his bitterness, describing Smaltz as an "egomaniac." For four brutal years, he said, he battled sporadic depression.
"It was horrible," Espy said. "Every day, you ask yourself: 'Lord, why me?' "
The committee's sympathetic Democrats howled with outrage: This, Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) declared, is exactly why the Independent Counsel Act is now deceased.
"So why the hell are we here?" muttered Bennett, who defended President Clinton against Starr during the Monica Lewinsky matter and Reagan administration Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger during the Iran-contra affair.
Delahunt later answered Bennett's sotto voce question: Partly to give the act a properly hostile burial, partly to reflect on the lessons it taught about the dangers of prosecutorial independence over its 20-year lifespan. The act was an idealistic vestige of Watergate, a popular effort to make sure powerful officials could be investigated without political taint. But there is now a widespread feeling that giving unelected prosecutors almost unlimited power and money to investigate anyone was a mistake.
The subcommittee did not hear from Starr or any other prosecutors. It was more interested in resentful defendants such as McDougal, who sobbed as she recounted the 18 months she spent in jail for refusing to testify before Starr's grand jury--but really, she claimed, for refusing to tell the lies about the Clintons and Whitewater that Starr wanted to hear. In an interview, McDougal said she is now caring for her ailing parents in Arkansas and touring the country to crusade for better conditions for female prisoners, but she confided that she is still afraid Starr will concoct a reason to indict her again.
"He's still out there, you know," she said, shooting a quick glance over her shoulder. "I'm telling you, there is nothing that man wouldn't do."
Steele, a 52-year-old grandmother from Richmond, told a similar story: She said Starr's deputies told her she'd be fine as long as she testified that Clinton had groped her friend Kathleen E. Willey. But Steele said she refused, because it wasn't true. Next, she said, Starr's minions began tearing her life apart, hinting that her son's adoption was illegal, asking her neighbor whether he had slept with her and finally indicting her for obstruction of justice.
Her case ended in a hung jury, but she has lost her job and is drowning in debt. And if her story is true, as Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) noted, Starr's office suborned perjury by pressuring her to lie under oath--the same crime Starr was trying to pin on Clinton.
"My crime was standing up to Ken Starr," Steele said. "My crime was speaking out against him and his Gestapo tactics. . . . I hope no one else ever has to go through what I went through."
Presumably, given the recent demise of the statute, no one ever will. But as the Democrats on the committee vented their indignation about runaway prosecutors, the members of the makeshift victims' club assembled yesterday seemed grateful for the validation. In an interview during a break, Steele said she thought the hearing might help her put her ordeal behind her.
"This really is a reunion, isn't it?" she said. "It does bring back some memories. Hopefully, it will provide some closure, too."