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Espy: Independent counsel law needs 'substantial' reform

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, December 4) -- Former Agriculture secretary Mike Espy, cleared on federal corruption charges Wednesday, hopes for the chance to tell lawmakers his experience as evidence of an out-of-control independent counsel process.

Espy
Mike Espy  

Congress must decide in June whether or not to renew the independent counsel law. After enduring a four-year, $17 million dollar investigation, Espy says, "I think it needs to be substantially reformed -- or quashed."

The law allows the Justice Department to appoint outside prosecutors in criminal investigations of senior government officials or lawmakers.

A federal jury acquitted Espy of 30 charges brought by Independent Counsel Donald Smaltz. Smaltz charged Espy took gifts from companies he regulated and lied about it.

Opponents of the law most often cite Independent Counsel Ken Starr's investigation of Whitewater and the Monica Lewinsky affair as reason to do away with the 20-year law.

Critics have also embraced Espy's case as an example of an independent counsel investigation lasting years and ending up far from its original target.

Generally critics view the law as a reaction to the Watergate scandal that leads to overzealous prosecution and needless time and expense.

Smaltz
Donald Smaltz  

The former Agriculture secretary's case is "added ammunition" against the institution, "or at least in favor of limiting severely the kinds of crimes and people who can be attacked by an independent counsel and limiting the time and money available to them," said Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein.

Rothstein and others believe most prosecutors would not have pursued the Espy case.

"A normal prosecutor, if he doesn't feel it's much of a case, will say, 'Let's go on to other cases, there are plenty of bad guys,'" said Theodore Olson, a Justice Department official during the Reagan administration. Olson was the focus of an extended investigation by an independent counsel himself. The probe was eventually closed with no charges leveled against anyone.

Olson, a friend of Starr's, said, "Here, there's a tendency to spend a large amount of money and a large amount of time looking at boulders, to pebbles to minute specks of dust."

The case against former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros is another example of a prosecution only an independent counsel would pursue, according to Olson. Cisneros, like Espy, resigned from his post when an independent counsel investigation began. Cisneros faces trial in February on charges related to money he paid to an ex-lover.

The Independent Counsel law is not without its supporters. There are those who see the Espy case as proof the law is useful.

"There's a lot of money spent and you can say the results have not been that dramatic," said Ronald Allen, a law professor at Northwestern University. Allen says he is "an agnostic" on the law.

"But it's hard to know what reality would have been like without the law," Allen said. He suggested the independent counsel might carry a strong deterrent effect stopping other officials who, like Espy, "might be tempted to take free tickets."

Defenders of Smaltz point out the prosecutor won many cases on his way to the Espy trial and as a result collected approximately $11 million in fines to offset the costs of the $17 million prosecution.

Following the Espy verdict, Smaltz said, "The actual indictment of a public official may be as great a deterrent as a conviction of that official."

The Republicans have a history of opposing the law. They were against its passage in 1978 and decried the law during Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh's investigation of the Iran-Contra affair.

Since Clinton pushed for its reauthorization in 1994, there have been seven investigations of officials in his administration. Four of those are currently active, including Starr's investigation and David Barrett's investigation of Cisneros.

Also being investigated are Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Herman is being investigated by Ralph Lancaster Jr. on allegations she solicited $250,000 in illegal campaign contributions and peddled influence. Prosecutor Carol Elder Bruce is looking into allegations that Babbitt lied to Congress about his part in rejecting a Wisconsin Indian tribe's casino proposal.

Including the Espy case, three of the seven investigations have ended. One inquiry involved the financial dealings of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. The other focused on conflict-of-interest allegations against former White House aide Eli Segal.



RELATED STORIES

Espy trial goes to jury (12-1-98)

Judge throws out 8 1/2 counts against Espy (11-24-98)

Lobbyist says he was pressured to testify against Espy (10-31-98)

Espy called ethics rules 'junk' (10-6-98)

Espy trial starts Thursday (9-30-98)

Espy pleads not guilty (9-10-97)



RELATED SITES

Department of Agriculture Web site

Tyson Food Web site



MORE STORIES:

Friday, December 4, 1998

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