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 TIME on politics Congressional Quarterly CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics - Storypage, with TIME and Congressional Quarterly

Justice opposes renewal of independent counsel law

March 2, 1999
Web posted at: 5:59 p.m. EST (2259 GMT)

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, March 2) -- Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder told a House committee Tuesday the Independent Counsel Act suffers from "fundamental structural flaws" and Congress should not reauthorize it. But Holder came under some tough questioning from lawmakers who questioned Justice's change of heart on the law.

In testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee, Holder said the act has failed to accomplish its goal of bolstering public confidence in investigations of high public officials, but instead created a climate of controversy that undermined public confidence.

Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder testified in front of a House Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday  

Holder said the act covers too many officials and the independent investigations are extremely costly. He said the high costs are inherent in a process that requires independent counsels to set up an office from scratch, leave no stone unturned in their investigations and produce a comprehensive final report.

"This is a very expensive way to do business," Holder said.

The way the act is written also works against prosecutorial discretion, Holder said, which is essential to the nation's system of justice.

Holder said Attorney General Janet Reno came to the conclusion to oppose reauthorization of the legislation within the last few weeks, following a review by an internal Justice study group headed by Holder.

If Congress does choose to re-enact the measure, Justice Department officials favor several changes in it, including:

  • budget controls over an independent counsel,
  • time limits on an investigation,
  • curtailing the relative ease of expanding an independent counsel's mandate beyond the original scope,
  • and giving the attorney general more investigative tools during the preliminary investigation when the Department is trying to assess whether to recommend the appointment of an independent counsel.

    Now, during the preliminary investigative phase, the attorney general is not allowed to convene grand juries or to subpoena documents.

    Leaders of both parties have harshly criticized the law, with many predicting Congress will not renew it. Independent Counsel Ken Starr's probe of President Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky has been a lightning rod for criticism of the act.

    The law requires the attorney general to seek the appointment of an independent counsel when there is substantial and credible evidence of a crime by any one of 49 top federal officials, including the president.

    A panel of three federal judges then picks an attorney for the job. With approval from the attorney general and the appointing judges, the independent counsel can broaden investigations far beyond the original mandate, another target of the law's critics.

    The statute was tested and found constitutional by the Supreme Court. Republicans were the first to complain of the law's abuse during Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh's seven-year Iran-Contra investigation. The controversy prompted Congress to let the law lapse for 18 months during the early 1990s.

    Ironically, it was Clinton who successfully campaigned for the statute's renewal in 1994.


    Senators predict end to Independent Counsel Act

    Senate panel spotlights independent counsel law (2-24-99)

    Congress to ponder independent counsel demise (2-23-99)

    Hatch: Reno decision on Ickes 'death knell' for independent counsel (1-30-99)

    Espy: Independent Counsel law needs 'substantial' reform (12-4-98)


    AllPolitics' Watergate 25th Anniversary Web site

    Department of Justice Web site

    Office of Independent Counsel Web site

    White House Web site

    Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Web site


    The Independent Counsel


    Tuesday, March 2, 1999

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