A Special Prosecutor for Pierce

ENOUGH smoke surrounds former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel Pierce to justify a search for fire. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh heeded the smoke detector last week by requesting the appointment of a special prosecutor (more properly, an independent counsel) to investigate allegations of favoritism by Mr. Pierce in the awarding of lucrative housing grants during his tenure at HUD. According to congressional witnesses and press sources, Pierce and a coterie of aides handed out rent subsidies for rehab projects as political patronage. Former Reagan administration officials and other Republican activists made hundreds of thousands of dollars as developers or lobbyists for the projects.

Although a criminal investigation seems warranted, the attorney general rightly seeks a tight focus for the probe. In his request to the appointing court, Mr. Thornburgh limited that scope to Pierce's conduct relating to a single HUD program. Thornburgh excluded an investigation into allegations of perjury in Pierce's congressional testimony, saying he found insufficient evidence to support the allegations.

The post-Watergate Ethics in Government Act gives special prosecutors unprecedented power. It affords them open-ended resources to investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute a single defendant, without competing demands on their time, staff, or funds. Such power needs to be exercised judiciously, with full regard to targets' rights. A special prosecutor mustn't embark on a fishing expedition.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D) of California says his subcommittee will continue its own investigation, as well it should. It should take care, however, that it doesn't unwittingly impede the special prosecutor. In particular, it should hold off in granting immunity to Deborah Gore Dean and other former Pierce assistants if their testimony would be hard for the special prosecutor to corroborate independently.

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