Government of investigators, by investigators and for investigators


WASHINGTON -- The complaints about the costs of special prosecutors usually come from those whose ox is being gored. Republicans, for example, heaped abuse on Lawrence Walsh's long-running investigation of the Iran-contra affair. And these days Democrats are complaining about the more than $15 million Kenneth Starr has spent on the Whitewater case.

In light of the way government spends money, $15 million or less is not going to make a lot of difference. But legitimate questions can be raised about the number, scope and costs of these investigations. One obvious question is whether there should not be more limits put on the prosecutors. The way it works now, they all seem to think they can use the original issue as a starting point and then cast about in every direction.

The inquiry on the Whitewater affair is a classic example. Originally, there appeared to be two federal issues. The first was whether President Clinton had exerted improper influence to protect Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan in Little Rock. The collapse of that bank cost federal taxpayers $60 million. The second question, equally valid, was whether members of the White House staff had acted improperly in trying to protect the president from the investigators.

Those questions seem to have been viewed by prosecutor Starr as just a starting point. He has been looking into, among other things, the financing of Mr. Clinton's gubernatorial campaign in 1990, which was governed by state law. And he recently has added another investigator for still another examination of the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster Jr., a matter that has been investigated by at least three different agencies without producing any evidence that it was anything more than what it appeared to be at the time.

No one would suggest that a special counsel should ignore evidence of a crime uncovered in the course of the inquiry. But does Mr. Starr intend to expose all the corruption that may have occurred in Arkansas politics for the last two generations?

A further question is whether these matters require an independent counsel, or might simply be left to the Justice Department and the regular mechanisms of law enforcement.

The special investigation of former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy is a case in point. Mr. Espy, who has resigned, was accused of accepting favors from companies whose affairs could be affected by the Agriculture Department. The charges were serious enough to justify an investigation. But were they so complex that an independent counsel needed to spend $3.4 million getting to the truth, as Donald Smaltz did in just the first year of that inquiry? Or could the Justice Department have used its own attorneys to get the answers?

The answer, of course, is politics. Any administration fears that its Justice Department won't have the credibility to investigate someone from another department, that any result short of a sentence to the gallows will be seen as a whitewash. Given the attitude of most Americans toward the government these days, that fear may be justified. But there are enough professionals in the Justice Department to overcome the chance of politics dictating the outcome of something like the Espy case.

Risking backfire

Any investigation of a Cabinet member is going to be closely watched by both the political opposition in Congress and the press. It is hard to imagine an egregious whitewash job that wouldn't backfire politically.

Both parties have shown that they will be quick to conduct congressional inquiries of any situation that appears politically promising. That is precisely what has been going on in the Whitewater case even though there is an independent counsel -- and a Republican one at that -- already investigating

It is clear that the special prosecutors are being used in many of these cases to provide political cover. That cover seems necessary because none of the institutions of government and politics have the confidence of the voters. The voters are paying a high price for their cynicism.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/08/96

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