This spring, Republicans and Democrats voiced outrage over the news that independent counsel David M. Barrett was still pursuing a decade-long, $21 million investigation into a crime long confessed and paid for. Without debate, the Senate unanimously agreed to strip Barrett of further funding for his inquiry on former housing secretary Henry G. Cisneros.
But, prodded by conservative commentators, House Republican leaders grew convinced that Democrats were trying to suppress embarrassing revelations about the Clinton administration. The Senate provision was ditched behind closed doors, and Barrett and his staff continue to work -- at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $2 million a year -- on an inquiry that seemingly ended 13 months ago.
In its semiannual audit, the Government Accountability Office said yesterday that Barrett spent $930,742 from October 2004 to March 2005, six years after Cisneros pleaded guilty to the charges Barrett was appointed to investigate -- and more than a year after Barrett submitted his 400-page report for final judicial review. The GAO did not indicate what Barrett has been doing since he finished his report, other than maintain staff and office expenditures that have continued to rise since the investigation ended.
John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, said yesterday that Congress has no business intervening in an independent counsel's investigation -- which, after all, is supposed to be independent.
Besides, he said, moves to strip Barrett's funding amount to "legal assistance from Democrats trying to cover up a report that would tar them."
Other independent counsel probes, even ones of far more expansive scope, have been wrapped up in less time than Barrett's. At $47 million, Lawrence E. Walsh's probe of illegal arms sales to Iran and the diversion of funds to Nicaraguan rebels was more expensive, but it took less than eight years. Kenneth W. Starr's probe, which skittered from the Whitewater land deal to the suicide of Vincent W. Foster Jr. to White House travel office firings to Monica S. Lewinsky, began less than a year before Barrett's and officially closed in March 2004. The probe of alleged financial improprieties by the late commerce secretary Ronald H. Brown took less than a year and $3.3 million, according to Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
In a break from previous audits, the GAO report included language saying it was not expressing an opinion on the reasonableness or appropriateness of the expenditures. But in an interview, U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker, a political independent who heads the agency, said he has requested additional information on Barrett's activities, given the sums involved and the state of his investigation.
It is not clear what Barrett's office is doing on a day-to-day basis, but the audit provided broad categories of expenditures. Barrett spent $464,009 on pay and benefits over six months; $24,014 on travel; $236,316 on rent, phone bills and utilities; $103,233 on contractors, mainly lawyers on retainer; and $74,178 on administrative services.
"These are pretty substantial numbers," Walker said.
"Infuriating and inexcusable," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, who has long been critical of Barrett. "He's burning through taxpayer dollars, and Washington Republicans won't make him accountable for the millions he's wasted."
In a preemptive move, Barrett faxed out a statement Thursday to defend his activity against the "numerous media accounts and considerable political posturing" that were occasioned by the last GAO audit. "The GAO has consistently found that the [office of independent counsel] has effective internal controls over its financial reporting and has complied with applicable laws and regulations," Barrett said in the fax. "It has never suggested that the OIC has improperly spent or mis-accounted for any funds," the statement said.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who wrote the legislation to cut off Barrett's funding, called the ongoing expenditures "unbelievably stupid."
Barrett is the last independent counsel of the Clinton era, still in business six years after Cisneros pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about money he paid to a former mistress. Cisneros paid a $10,000 fine and a $25 court assessment in 1999 and was later pardoned by Clinton.
Barrett has expanded the probe to look into allegations that a regional Internal Revenue Service audit into Cisneros's payments to the mistress was transferred to Washington and then stifled.
Barrett said he should be able to close his office by the beginning of 2006, once the three-judge panel overseeing his work decides whether his report can be released to the public. Barrett has been saying he is nearing completion of his work since 2003.
In April, when the last GAO audit was released, the Senate attached the Dorgan amendment to a mammoth emergency spending bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That elicited charges by conservative commentators that Democrats were trying to cover up improprieties of the Clinton era, possibly by the IRS.
They blamed the investigation delays on Cisneros's attorneys. A Wall Street Journal editorial charged that lawyers at Williams & Connolly have filed more than 190 motions and appeals in the case, one of which took 18 months to resolve. The law firm would not comment.
Columnist Robert D. Novak said Dorgan's amendment, inserted "in the dead of the night," would "close a rare window into political foul play at the Internal Revenue Service."
Dorgan said his amendment would not have precluded the release of the final report, which was already completed. But in House and Senate negotiations over the spending bill, House leaders refused to accept the Dorgan language, and it was dropped.