WASHINGTON — The Senate gave final approval Friday to a bill that would extend and strengthen the independent counsel law, which is under legal attack by former Reagan Administration officials accused of wrongdoing.
The measure, designed to ensure impartial investigations of alleged misconduct by top presidential aides, was approved 85 to 7 and sent to President Reagan's desk. The House previously approved the bill.
The Justice Department, along with some Republican lawmakers, has argued that the law is unconstitutional and said it will recommend that the President veto the measure. However, department officials made the same recommendation on a 1982 reauthorization bill for the statute, and Reagan signed it into law.
Addresses Interpretation Issue
In addition to reauthorizing the law for five years, the legislation would tighten sections of the statute to resolve congressional concerns over how Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III has interpreted the law.
Lawmakers have expressed concern about Meese's refusal to authorize independent counsels in certain cases, saying Meese has improperly twisted provisions of the law to justify his decisions.
For example, questions have been raised about Meese's refusal to name an independent counsel to look into allegations that Faith Ryan Whittlesey, a former White House aide who as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland was accused of misspending official funds.
Legislators have also criticized Meese's failure to recuse himself in cases in which he has had extensive dealings with individuals under investigation.
Allege Improper Powers
Justice Department officials have attacked the independent counsel law, contending it improperly gives the independent counsel powers that the Constitution assigns to the attorney general.
The same argument has been made in numerous legal challenges to the statute filed by key figures in cases now being pursued by several independent counsels.
Lower courts have upheld the constitutionality of the law, but the issue has been appealed and is not expected to be decided until it reaches the Supreme Court.
Independent counsels have been appointed for the Iran-Contra affair; alleged lobbying improprieties by former Reagan aides Michael K. Deaver and Lyn Nofziger; Meese's role in lobbying for Wedtech Corp., a defunct New York defense contractor, and alleged misconduct by Environmental Protection Agency officials relating to the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program.
Linked to Watergate
The law was enacted by Congress in 1978 after President Richard M. Nixon's effort to squelch an investigation of the Watergate scandal in 1973 by firing special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Lawmakers say independent counsels are needed to investigate alleged misconduct by top presidential aides because the attorney general, who normally would look into such accusations, is typically a confidant of the President and thus could have a conflict of interest in any such probe.
Under the statute, the attorney general decides whether there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to merit the appointment of an independent counsel. However, a special court decides who will serve as independent counsel, and that person then has full authority to press an investigation.