Reno backs scrapping 'structurally flawed' counsel law
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, March 17) -- Attorney General Janet Reno told Congress Wednesday that the independent counsel law was "structurally flawed" and should be allowed to expire when its authorization runs out in June.
Reno said that the statute had failed in its key goal of removing politics from the investigation of top federal officials.
The attorney general's role in requesting an independent counsel to investigate colleagues in the same administration opens the process up to political second-guessing, she said, which undermines the public confidence that the statute was created to build.
"I have come to believe, after much reflection and with great reluctance, that the independent counsel act is structurally flawed and that those flaws cannot be corrected within our constitutional framework," Reno told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. The committee is considering whether the statute should be renewed.
The law -- which grew out of the Watergate scandals and first went into effect in 1978 -- requires the attorney general to seek the appointment of an independent counsel when there is substantial evidence of possible wrongdoing by top federal officials.
In 1994, when the law was brought up for renewal last, Reno's Justice Department supported the measure.
The Justice Department's change in policy on the measure was first signaled earlier this month when Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder went before a House panel to argue the statute should be scrapped.
Holder said that the new opposition was not based on "problems with individual independent counsels," such as Ken Starr, whose nearly five-year investigation of President Bill Clinton led to only the second presidential impeachment in history.
Reno said Wednesday that she had reversed her support for the law after seeing her decisions on some cases "plunged into the political process."
"Maybe ... it has to do just with your decisions," retorted Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tennessee) chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee.
While Reno used the statute to request the appointment of independent counsels seven times, she has been under fire from Thompson and other Republicans in Congress for failure to recommend one to investigate fund raising by the 1996 Clinton/Gore re-election campaign.
The law is set to expire June 30. It is widely disliked by members of both parties after independent counsel investigations of Republican and Democratic presidents and other government officials.
Much of the criticism of the law stems from the costs incurred. Under the current law, special prosecutors have an unlimited budget to hire aides and investigate their targets. Starr, for instance, has spent nearly $50 million investigating Clinton.
If Congress lets the law expire, as it did in 1992 before renewing it 18 months later, dozens of high-ranking government officials who now could be subject to an independent counsel inquiry would be investigated instead by the Justice Department.
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