WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III urged a federal judge to dismiss a constitutional attack on independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh's Iran- contra investigation Thursday and gave Walsh a backup appointment to his post should the court agree with the challenge.
"The Department of Justice has been committed to ensuring that the independent counsel's investigation go forward unimpeded," Meese told a press conference in announcing the official executive branch appointment.
Walsh's office was created last Dec. 19 by a special federal court under the 1978 Ethics in Government Act. That appointment is now being challenged on the grounds that authority to investigate and prosecute belongs exclusively to the executive branch under the Constitution.
Liked Meese's Move
Although the Justice Department stopped short of supporting Walsh's contention that his office is constitutionally sound, the independent counsel said he welcomed Meese's "willingness to eliminate any doubt which may have arisen as to the continuity" of the investigation.
"We believe the statute under which the court appointed independent counsel is constitutional, but the attorney general's action will assure lack of interruption of the ongoing investigation," Walsh said in a statement.
Meese emphasized that Walsh's new mandate is "identical" to the jurisdiction given him by the special court that appointed him to investigate all aspects of the Iran arms sales and diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan rebels--much broader than the mandate Meese originally sought when he asked the court to name an outside prosecutor.
Challenge by North
The constitutional objection to Walsh's authority--raised by Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the fired National Security Council official who is a central figure in the investigation--"places a question mark over all of Judge Walsh's activities," Meese said. With his backup appointment, the attorney general said, "we remove that question mark."
Meese said he cannot remove Walsh "except for cause," the same power he has under the court appointment.
In asking U.S. District Judge Barrington Parker to dismiss North's suit, the Justice Department noted that no charges have been lodged against North and that he will have the right to make the constitutional attack as a defense to prosecution if he is indicted.
With Walsh's backup appointment from the Justice Department as an independent counsel, "it is beyond dispute that the investigation of (North's) conduct would continue," even if the court struck down the court's appointment as a violation of the separation of powers doctrine, the department argued.
Meese said the department has begun to contact independent counsels conducting investigations of four other former Administration officials to explore whether they need similar protection to ensure the continuation of their inquiries.
In the investigation of former presidential aide Michael K. Deaver by independent counsel Whitney North Seymour Jr., a federal judge has held up indictment on perjury charges because of constitutional objections raised by Deaver's lawyers.
Meese refused to give his own view of the constitutionality of the Ethics in Government Act until a review of the issue is completed by Justice Department lawyers.