Starr's Probe May Be The Last to Stray So Far

American Bar Association votes on proposals to rein in independent counsel

When he writes the final chapter on one of the most expensive investigations of its kind in American history, Kenneth Starr may also be closing the book on the office of the independent counsel as it exists today.

As the lawyer-helmsman of the three-year, $30 million dollar Whitewater probe (with no end in sight), Mr. Starr has won only a handful of relatively minor convictions. So far, he has yet to move against either of the principals in his case: the president and the first lady.

Meanwhile, critics are increasingly calling Starr a runaway prosecutor. The length and sprawl of the Whitewater probe, which has expanded far beyond its original mandate to investigate a failed Arkansas land deal, may be strengthening resolve across the political spectrum to amend or abolish the independent counsel statute when it comes up for renewal in 1999.

"Counsels have run roughshod over the years," says Miami lawyer Neal Sonnett.

Mr. Sonnett and other members of the American Bar Association want to clip the counsel's wings. At the ABA's annual national meeting under way in San Francisco, they are pushing reform proposals that, if approved, will be used to lobby Washington to curb the powers of the independent counsel. They could vote as early as Aug. 6.

The recommendations would put new limits on which political offices can be investigated and for what reasons, and eliminate the current requirement for a final report.

"If you took a poll you'd find a lot of people who are at least cognizant that some kind of limitations are needed to make sure the IC doesn't become a runaway train," says Sonnet, describing Starr as a "poster boy" for reform.

The independent counsel statute came in the wake of Watergate to bolster public confidence in the ability of the government to impartially investigate itself - particularly the highest levels of the executive branch, including the president. It has always been controversial.

Even Starr argued against reauthorization in the Reagan years.

While Starr's investigation has the highest profile, there are two other investigations of the Clinton administration under way. Donald Smaltze has been investigating former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy since 1994. In 1995, David Barrett was appointed to investigate Henry Cisneros, then-secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

According to the General Accounting Office, those investigations in the past two years alone have cost more than $36 million. By eliminating the need for a final report, the ABA believes investigations would be shorter, less expensive, and less intrusive, since investigators would be less preoccupied with publicly proving their investigations are balanced.

As with many past independent-counsel investigations, Starr's three-year-old probe quickly mushroomed beyond its original mandate to examine the Clintons' Whitewater land deal in Arkansas. The investigation's offshoots include the death of Vincent Foster, the FBI files flap, and the firing of the White House Travel Office employees.

Most recently, Starr came under fire for questioning witnesses in Arkansas about the nature of Bill Clinton's relationships with more than a dozen women.

A fellow Republican in the Reagan Justice Department, Terry Eastland, says there is no need for the independent counsel.

"So much of this is tinkering around the edges and I think we'll continue to have problems or objections to the statute," says Mr. Eastland, who predicted in a book on the subject eight years ago that the statute would not be overturned until Republicans had control of Congress and a Democrat occupied the White House.

Iran-contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who spent seven years and more than $40 million examining wrongdoing in the Reagan and Bush White Houses, says the office is necessary but should be limited.

"The real problem is to define the triggering standard" Walsh says. He thinks appointing a counsel "should be related only to misuse of government or unlawful use of government power in a matter of public importance."

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