Not so special prosecutors

October 03, 1997|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- What's wrong with this picture?

The special prosecutor investigating former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros has been at work for 29 months and has spent $3.8 million, according to the General Accounting Office.

The task of independent counsel David M. Barrett was to determine whether Mr. Cisneros lied to the FBI about the amount of money he had paid or was paying to a former mistress to support her child.

The relationship between Mr. Cisneros and the woman in question was never a secret. It had been disclosed, admitted and given a thorough airing in the news media while he was mayor of San Antonio. The only question was whether Mr. Cisneros was paying a larger amount than he told the FBI while being vetted for his original appointment by President Clinton. The implied concern was that a Cabinet member might have greater financial obligations than would be prudent for a federal official making decisions involving huge amounts of money.

To any sensible person, the obvious question is: Why in the world would it take more than two years to get the answer? How many witnesses could there be? How many financial records would have to be studied?

The history of several of the other special prosecutors is similarly mind-boggling. The investigation of the Reagan administration Department of Housing and Urban Development has been going on for seven years and has cost $27 million.

The inquiry into whether then-Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy had accepted various gratuities from regulated companies took three years and $11.9 million before Mr. Espy was indicted the other day.

Some special prosecutors also seem to see their portfolios as a license to clean up the world. Kenneth Starr, named to look into the Clintons' role in the Whitewater land deal in Arkansas, has been at work for three years, at a cost of $25.6 million, and seems determined to nail anyone who ever jaywalked in Little Rock.

These precedents are worth considering as Attorney General Janet Reno goes through the process of deciding whether an independent counsel is needed to investigate the fund-raising telephone calls made by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore from the White House.

The legal questions here are complex and arcane. But the White House telephone records are obviously available and the number of witnesses in a position to know would be limited to a handful of White House staff members and a few dozen potential contributors who might have been called.

Delayed answers

But given the history of these things, it could take two or three years and heaven knows how much money to get the answers.

And then there is the question of what the result might be. Does anyone imagine that a grand jury is going to indict the president or vice president on a largely technical violation of a law written in 1883 to cover an entirely different set of circumstances?

The fundamental question, of course, is why many of these cases could not be handled routinely by the Department of Justice. And the answer, just as obvious, is because these days no one would trust one arm of the administration to investigate another -- the same concern that led to the independent counsel law being written after Watergate.

But in a broader sense, the answer is the crudest kind of politics. Janet Reno is going through these preliminaries in the matter of the White House telephone calls because the Republicans are braying so loudly about the issue. And she knows that if she decides a special prosecutor is not justified, for whatever reason, she will evoke howls of "whitewash" from the Republicans.

The political noise makes it difficult if not impossible to make the kind of distinctions that should be made in cases of official wrongdoing. In the Watergate case, it should not be forgotten, then-President Richard M. Nixon had involved or attempted to involve federal agencies, including the FBI, in the cover-up.

But there was no such history in, for example, the Cisneros case or the Espy case. And there has been no such suggestion in the case of White House fund-raising.

There is no reason other than these harsh political realities that the inquiry couldn't be conducted by Justice Department lawyers. Nor is there any reason to believe those lawyers would go into the tank for Messrs. Clinton or Gore.

But these days no one trusts anyone else, and the politicians exploit that distrust when it suits their purposes. So the prospect is for still another special prosecutor, need it or not.

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

Pub Date: 10/03/97

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