House votes 356-56 to renew law on independent prosecutors

February 11, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- The House voted 356-56 yesterday to reinstate a law that permits the appointment of independent counsels to investigate and prosecute alleged criminal acts by high-ranking public officials and members of Congress.

First enacted in 1978, the law lapsed 14 months ago. Former President George Bush and Republican senators had blocked its renewal, complaining that it had been abused by Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh.

But with a possible Whitewater real estate investigation of President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton looming, Republican leaders changed tack late last year and endorsed renewal -- with some added controls to answer their complaints.

In the end, 243 Democrats, 112 Republicans and 1 independent voted for the bill. Against were 54 Republicans and 2 Democrats. Every member of Maryland's House delegation voted for the bill, except Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett, who voted against it.

The Senate passed similar legislation in the fall, and the two houses are expected to resolve the differences. President Clinton has promised to sign the legislation.

Attorney General Janet Reno recently named New York attorney Robert B. Fiske Jr. as a special counsel to probe the Whitewater case, so a court-appointed independent counsel -- who could be named under the renewed legislation -- is not likely to get involved.

But reinstatement of the law would permit politically neutral investigations of the 60 highest-ranking officials of the executive branch and the 535 members of the House and Senate.

Republicans have complained bitterly that independent counsels were being used mainly to attack executive branch officials in lTC GOP administrations.

In late 1992, a threatened GOP filibuster in the Senate, coupled with a veto pledge by Mr. Bush, had blocked reauthorization of the law.

Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., Senate minority leader, had mounted an unremitting assault against Mr. Walsh, who took nearly seven years and spent about $37 million to investigate the Iran-contra scandal.

The bill passed by the House yesterday takes into account several of the criticisms raised by the Republicans.

Among other things, it would require periodic audits and reports to Congress of the independent counsel's expenditures. It would also require the counsels to abide by the same rules that apply to the Justice Department in spending for investigations,

including salaries, travel and lodging.

And it would require the U.S. Court of Appeals -- which appoints the counsels at the attorney general's request -- to review investigations at least every three years to determine whether they should be terminated.

The bill gives the attorney general the option of either directly investigating charges against members of Congress or seeking appointment of an independent counsel when a senator or representative is suspected of breaking the law.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., noted that, for the first time, the law "clearly and explicitly includes members of Congress as those subject to an investigation by an independent counsel."

At the moment, the Justice Department -- without using an independent counsel -- is investigating Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. It also is looking into criminal allegations against Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore. Rep. Joseph M. McDade, R-Pa., is under indictment and awaiting trial on several charges.

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