Selecting a Special Counsel

January 14, 1994

President Clinton did the right thing in asking Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint a special, independent counsel to look into allegations of impropriety and worse involving his and Hillary Clinton's involvement with a failed savings and loan in Arkansas while he was governor.

He should have done it last week. It's unfortunate that he had to deal with this story while on his important European trip, but that's politics. His adversaries, such as Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, believe this apparent scandal may be political pay dirt for the Republican Party, and are behaving accordingly.

Senator Dole has always been a partisan gut fighter, but even his friends must be a little chagrined at how nakedly aggressive he has been in this case. Last week he called on Ms. Reno to appoint a special prosecutor. He said if she did name one "with a reputation for integrity and competence, there will be no second guessing." His immediate response to the news that she would appoint one was to say it wasn't good enough; he now wants a congressional probe as well. A good appointee with a proper charter is all that is needed. Congress is not needed. Second guess later, but certainly not now.

Details of the Clintons' ties to the Arkansas S&L owner are complicated and confusing. What now appears to be sleazy may not be. By the same token, explanations that make certain actions seem completely innocent may prove misleading.

Given this and the fact that those at the center of this story are a president, a first lady and, perhaps, a White House official who committed suicide and the No. 3 official at the Department of Justice -- the choice of a special counsel is critical.

Among the names mentioned for the job, none is more interesting than former Supreme Court Justice Byron White. He would be above suspicion as a whitewasher or backstabber. Senator Dole's own list included Benjamin Civiletti. He has the skills and the integrity, but whether a former U.S. attorney general in a Democratic administration could avoid partisan criticism is doubtful. (Justice White was in the Justice Department, but his 31 years on the court compensate for that.)

Other Marylanders come to mind. Stephen Sachs, who as state attorney general was in charge of the prosecution in the Jeffrey Levitt case, when this state had its savings and loan scandals. Wilbur Preston Jr. is the lawyer Gov. Harry Hughes appointed special counsel to investigate the entire S&L crisis for the state and later was general counsel for the federal commission that investigated the national S&L collapse. George Beall distinguished himself as someone above politics as U.S. attorney by exposing Spiro Agnew's illegalities.

We are not in the business of nominating individuals, but lawyers of such standing and experiences are what this particular situation demands.

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