WASHINGTON — President Reagan signed a five-year extension of the independent counsel law Tuesday, despite what he said were "my very strong doubts about its constitutionality."
The law continues the authority under which court-appointed independent counsels investigate alleged wrongdoing by senior government officials. Reagan had threatened to veto the bill, which was approved by the House 322 to 90 and by the Senate 85 to 7.
In a message announcing that he had signed the measure, Reagan said he still believes that government officials with executive authority in law enforcement must be appointed by the executive branch.
He said the government will continue to make that argument in a case pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington that challenges the constitutionality of the independent counsel act.
"Action on this bill, however, cannot await the resolution of that case," he said. "In order to ensure that public confidence in government not be eroded while the courts are in the process of deciding these questions, I am taking the extraordinary step of signing this bill despite my very strong doubts about its constitutionality."
Meese Power Curbed
In addition to reauthorizing the independent counsel, the measure would curb Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III's controversial administration of the statute.
Under the law, the attorney general is supposed to launch a 90-day preliminary inquiry upon receipt of information from a credible source alleging criminal conduct on the part of a high-ranking government official. A congressional subcommittee said Meese had "essentially eviscerated" the 90-day deadline with a device that the Justice Department calls a "threshold inquiry" to determine whether the information is specific and credible enough.
The new law will limit the amount of time in which the Justice Department must complete a preliminary investigation on allegations of criminal wrongdoing.
It also will require the attorney general to disqualify himself in any case involving someone with whom he has "a current or recent personal or financial relationship." Some members of Congress criticized Meese for failing to disqualify himself from the initial Iran-Contra inquiry and other cases in which he had known the target for years.
The law would have expired Jan. 2 unless extended. Its expiration would not, however, have affected the criminal investigations and prosecutions of past and present Reagan Administration officials under way.