Published Wednesday, March 18, 1998
Independent counsel idea has gone haywire, expert says
By Pam Mansell
As Kenneth Gormley sees it, the controversy surrounding President Bill Clinton and independent counsel Kenneth Starr isn't a question of ``whether we like or condone what Clinton has done. The question is whether we want a special prosecutor to investigate the personal life of the president.''
Gormley, a law professor at Duquesne University and the author of a new biography of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, spoke at Westminster College Tuesday about his book, the idea of an independent counsel and the current investigation of the president. The independent counsel statute was enacted after President Richard Nixon fired Cox and abolished the position of special prosecutor.
``It's my view that the independent counsel idea has kind of gone haywire,'' Gormley said.
He noted that the independent counsel law came into being because lawmakers wanted to ``avoid any hint of conflict, any partisan politics'' in the investigation of presidential wrongdoing.
``The idea was to take these cases out of the muck of politics,'' Gormley said, ``and an independent counsel was supposed to be used only in extraordinary, rare circumstances.''
Although it is the attorney general who recommends an independent counsel, the position itself is governed by a three-judge panel from the federal court. The scope of the investigation is supposed to be limited to a specific area, Gormley said, and the Aug. 4, 1994, charter given to independent counsel Kenneth Starr was supposed to be limited to the Whitewater investigation.
When Starr asked Attorney General Janet Reno to allow his office to expand the investigation into the Monica Lewinsky matter, it was because Starr wanted to pursue the role Vernon Jordan played in getting Lewinsky a job. Starr believed Jordan had done the same thing with people involved in Whitewater deals, Gormley said, and that was to be the link to the original investigation.
At that point, at least one of two things should have happened, Gormley said. Reno should have held the preliminary hearing that the independent counsel law required to see if an investigation were warranted. If so, then a new independent counsel should have been named, since the public perception of Starr, if not the reality, was that he was already ``out to get'' the president. But there was no hearing, and Starr continued in an investigation that seems to probe just about everything and everywhere.
``He's been allowed to investigate personal indiscretions that have only the vaguest link to Whitewater,'' Gormley noted. ``The investigation has been dangerously overbroad.''
Gormley said he knows Starr, and that he had ``great talent as a lawyer and great integrity.'' However, Gormley added, ``I think he's been getting bad advice.''
The judicial panel that oversees the independent counsel office could direct Starr to finish the report, Gormley explained. They could ask him either to link the investigation to Whitewater or end it.
But so far, Gormley noted, ``No one has put a brake on this thing. And it's a precedent that will be unlivable for future presidents.''
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Updated March 18, 1998
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