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Starr: Independent Counsel Act should not be renewed

Prosecutor says he can criminally prosecute president

April 14, 1999
Web posted at: 6:07 p.m. EDT (2207 GMT)

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, April 14) -- Independent Counsel Ken Starr defended his five-year investigation of President Clinton Wednesday but told a Senate committee that the law that gave him his current job is "structurally unsound," "constitutionally dubious" and should not be reauthorized. But under the current law, Starr said that he would continue his investigation and has the authority to criminally prosecute President Bill Clinton after he leaves office.

Starr told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday 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.

Starr
Ken Starr testifies against the Independent Counsel Act before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee  

"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."

Yet, in response to a question from Sen. Arlen Specter, Starr said that he believes that his jurisdiction includes the authority to criminally prosecute Clinton after the president leaves office.

Starr voiced that opinion after the Specter asked him whether he should continue as independent counsel "in light of your condemnatory language of the statute you operate under."

Starr replied that it was his duty and obligation to continue. "It is the law and senator, so long as it is the law, we are duty bound as law officers to faithfully enforce it and as cheerfully as we can," he said.

Starr came under some harsh criticism from some Democratic senators.

"If you live long enough, you'll experience everything," said Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey) after listening to Starr defend his own probe but condemn the Watergate-era independent counsel law as flawed beyond repair.

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who is not a member of the Governmental Affairs committee, issued a statement declaring Starr's remarks "like Jack the Ripper calling for more neighborhood patrols because of the surge in victims."

In his nearly 30-minute opening statement, Starr laid out his constitutional objections in scholarly and legalistic tone: "The statute tries to cram a fourth branch of government into our three-branch system."

Starr's five-year probe of 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."

But Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, one of the authors of the independent counsel law, said the problem lay not with the law but Starr's investigation.

Starr "managed to exceed" the limits the existing law places on independent counsel investigations, Levin said. He listed grievances including prosecutors talking to Monica Lewinsky about an immunity deal without her lawyer present, wiring Linda Tripp before receiving authorization to expand his investigation into the Lewinsky matter, and issuing subpoenas to Secret Service officers in conflict with Justice Department practice.

Starr said his office had legitimate reasons for each of those steps and was not bound by all Department of Justice decisions. "Could you imagine a DOJ policy that there would be no subpoenaing of presidential tapes in Watergate?" Starr asked.

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.

The three federal judges that appointed Starr to his job also appeared before the committee Wednesday.

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. Starr said the criticism was unfair and took its toll by undermining public confidence in his office.

"A duly authorized federal law-enforcement investigation came to be characterized as yet another political game," he said. "Law became politics by other means. The impact on public attitudes was unmistakable."

The committee's chairman, Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tennessee), said as he opened the hearing that Starr "has weathered withering attacks, some of which were exceedingly personal and vituperative."

Starr said that the independence of the office can be misread as antagonism. He also said the Justice Department has no incentives to come to the aid of an 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 grand jury heard testimony in the Lewinsky matter. 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.

White House press secretary Joe Lockhart told reporters as Starr was testifying: "It will be interesting to see how he squares his constitutional views with the performance over the last five years."

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 said. "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."


Investigating the President

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Wednesday, April 14, 1999

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