01/24/06 — Independent counsel: A noble idea, but it didn’t work

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Independent counsel: A noble idea, but it didn’t work

The costly ineffectiveness of the independent counsel approach to investigations was graphically illustrated by the Henry G. Cisneros case.

The investigation went on so long most people probably have forgotten who Cisneros is.

For the record, he was Housing Secretary under President Bill Clinton.

Special Prosecutor David Barrett undertook an investigation to determine whether Cisneros had lied to the FBI while being considered for the Cabinet post. The probe was intended to examine Cisneros’ tax returns to determine whether he had evaded paying income taxes.

Incredibly, the investigation went on for more than 10 years! It cost taxpayers $20 million. The independent counsel’s probe itself ended with no indictments.

The only thing it produced was a partisan fencing match between high-priced lawyers over access to documents and final allegations of cover-up, countered by denunciations of “scurrilous falsehoods.”

None of which was worth the $20 million.

Barrett was trying to show Cisneros had underreported his income by $300,000. He wanted to look at documents covering three years.

Attorney General Janet Reno allowed him access to returns for only one year. The final report contended the documents were removed from a field office in Texas to Washington in an attempt to kill the investigation.

While the independent investigation was going on, Cisneros was indicted on 18 felony counts. He copped a plea to a single misdemeanor — lying to the FBI about payments to a former mistress while answering questions following his nomination as housing secretary.

He was pardoned by President Clinton.

The independent counsel law expired when members of Congress refused to renew it. It had left both parties battered and bruised. But the investigation of Cisneros continued, and it alone ended up costing the taxpayers $20 million.

Creating independent counsel teams to investigate wrongdoing with political overtones was a noble idea. But it certainly never removed political influence and overtones from criminal investigations involving people at high levels of government.

Published in Editorials on January 24, 2006 9:22 AM