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Justice Dept. Wants Special Counsels Ended

June 17, 1987|RONALD J. OSTROW | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department, accusing independent counsels of "defiance," excessive spending and "unconscionable delay," said Tuesday it will recommend that President Reagan veto congressional action to renew the law under which such outside prosecutors are appointed.

"Nothing is too trivial for these people to investigate," Assistant Atty. Gen. John R. Bolton said at an unusually blunt press conference. He added that there are no limits to the "flimsiness of evidence" independent counsels will consider or to the "creativity" of the legal theories they will entertain.

Bolton's views were also expressed in a letter to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), sponsor of a bill to change and renew the independent counsel law, which will expire next January. Levin is chairman of a Senate subcommittee that is expected to approve the legislation Friday.

The Reagan Administration's all-out assault is certain to draw intense criticism because it appears to undercut the credibility of out side prosecutors who are still investigating several of its current and former officials. At least five former Administration officials and Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III are being investigated by independent counsels, in addition to several under scrutiny in the Iran- contra probe.

"This is no time for the Justice Department to level an attack on current independent counsel as they investigate or prosecute charges of wrongdoing by Administration officials," said Eugene C. Thomas, president of the American Bar Assn. and longtime supporter of the independent counsel concept.

The law under which such counsels are appointed, the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, was enacted in the years after the Watergate scandal in an attempt to ensure independent investigations of possible misconduct by high government officials.

'Direct Assault'

"This is the first direct assault by the Department of Justice against the independent counsel statute, but the department's position comes as no surprise," Levin said. Its "opposition has been apparent for years in the ways in which the department has attempted to undermine the independent counsel process."

When asked if the Administration did not fear that the public would interpret its attack on the independent counsel as politically motivated, Bolton said only that he was "saddened" by the fact that "there's no constituency for the Constitution."

He contended that Administration opposition to matters on constitutional grounds "is consistently misinterpreted by the press and politicians as a political argument."

Bolton, citing "the constitutional imperative that all federal prosecutors must be accountable to the President," said that the independent counsel law is unconstitutional because it authorizes investigation and prosecution without such accountability and gives the judiciary branch, rather than the executive, direction and control of the prosecutor.

Independent counsels are appointed by a special three-judge federal court. Constitutional challenges to the authority of such appointments are being made by two former White House aides, Michael K. Deaver and Oliver L. North, both targets of investigations.

In attacking the effectiveness of such investigations, Bolton noted that Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel in the Iran-contra case, had spent $1.3 million from last December through May. Bolton criticized Walsh's rental of office space in downtown Washington at $32 a square foot, which he said was near the highest paid by the government in the city.

"Independent counsel are generally drawn from the ranks of successful private practitioners, for whom fiscal austerity appears to be a relatively unfamiliar concept," Bolton said. Such counsels "are not constrained by the competition for resources from other cases" that ordinary prosecutors face, he added.

'Secure' Quarters

Walsh spokesman Dennis Feldman noted that the General Services Administration, the government's housekeeping arm, had negotiated the rent. He said that Walsh had specified that he needed "secure" quarters close to the FBI and the federal courthouse.

"Our expenditures are subject to the very same administrative review and audit as those of any other government agency," Feldman said.

Bolton condemned the attempt by Whitney North Seymour Jr., the independent counsel who has obtained a perjury indictment of Deaver, former deputy White House chief of staff, to subpoena the Canadian ambassador for testimony in the case.

Seymour's attempt to serve the subpoena on Ambassador Allan E. Gotlieb is "in defiance of the most basic principles of diplomatic immunity and over the protests of the State Department," Bolton said in his letter to Levin.

In addition, Bolton accused Alexia Morrison, the independent counsel investigating whether former Assistant Atty. Gen. Theodore B. Olson gave false congressional testimony, of "unconscionable delay," noting that the probe "has now entered an agonizing second year."

But Bolton discounted any effect of the Administration's veto threat on current investigations, contending that, if the law is not renewed, "something would be worked out" to ensure that they "continue in force."

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