Starr opposes Independent Counsel Act
April 14, 1999
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, April 14) -- Independent Counsel Ken Starr told a Senate committee that the law that gave him his current job is "structurally unsound," "constitutionally dubious" and should not be reauthorized.
Starr told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday morning that the purpose of the Independent Counsel Act was to retain the confidence of the people in government when high government officials are accused of crimes.
"By its very existence the act promises us that corruption in high places, will be reliably monitored, investigated, exposed and prosecuted through a process fully insulated from political winds," he said. "But that is more than the act delivers and more than it can delivers under our constitutional system," he said.
Starr also laid out his constitutional objections: "The statute tries to cram a fourth branch of government into our three-branch system."
Starr's five-year probe of President Bill Clinton led to only the second presidential impeachment in the nation's history. The ongoing probe also cost taxpayers more than $40 million so far and sparked debate over the Independent Counsel Act.
Justice Department officials have testified before Congress in recent months saying the current law should not be renewed. Among them was Attorney General Janet Reno who also characterized the statute as "structurally flawed."
"After carefully considering the statute and its consequences, both intended and unintended, I concur with the attorney general, who has aligned herself with her predecessors," he said. "The statute should not be reauthorized."
The American Bar Association, often considered the parent of the Independent Counsel Act, also has urged Congress not to reauthorize the law.
The law -- a product of the Watergate scandal that 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, including the president.
A panel of three federal judges then picks an attorney to investigate those allegations. Once on the job, the independent counsel can broaden the scope of an investigation far beyond the original mandate.
Also scheduled to appear before the committee Wednesday are the three federal judges that appointed Starr to his job.
The current 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.
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.
Starr told the committee that he reached his conclusions because of numerous reasons, including that the "statutory trigger is unenforceable" and that the independent counsel is "vulnerable to partisan attack."
Starr has been attacked by supporters of the president as a out-of-control prosecutor who was politically motivated and out to get the president. That criticism is unfair, Starr said.
"A duly authorized federal law-enforcement investigation came to be characterized as yet another political game," he said.
Starr said independence can be misread as antagonistic and the Justice Department has no incentives to come to the aid the independent counsel.
"With no institutional defender, independent counsels are especially vulnerable to partisan attack," Starr said.
Starr also spoke of the "carnival-like atmosphere" that existed outside the federal courthouse last year as the Whitewater grand jury heard testimony. Witnesses cowered as they were pursued by TV cameras, he said."Other witnesses used the cameras for their own ends, including to disseminate falsehoods about what had transpired in the grand jury room," he said.
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.
"I think it is fair to say that the Act has been a worthwhile experiment. Like most experiments that are professionally conducted, it has yielded significant results," Starr says. "The results, I believe, support this conclusion: Jurisdiction and authority over these cases ought to be returned to the Justice Department. And who will oversee them? The Congress, the press and the public."
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