For six months Congress has looked into allegations of multibillion dollar scandals, waste, mismanagement and influence-peddling at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the one person who might help Congress sort out the facts and shake out the truth, Samuel R. Pierce Jr., former secretary of HUD, testified once before a subcommittee and has since stonewalled the investigation by twice refusing to answer questions. His silence left little choice. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have requested the appointment of a special counsel to take over the investigation.
An independent counsel could pursue the inquiry into the activities of Pierce, some of his top aides and a favored few who profited handsomely from some operations at HUD. But that can happen only if Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh overcomes his objections to the request as an act of "partisan" politics and appoints counsel quickly. Time is running out.
Thornburgh is wrong about the request and his reaction illustrates perfectly the reason that special counsels are essential in such cases. There is nothing partisan about finally getting to the bottom of allegations of political favoritism, pay-offs and fraud that may have cost taxpayers more than $4 billion.
The need for haste lies in the law that set up the procedure for appointing independent counsel. The law provides that a special counsel has only one year in which to investigate a former Cabinet member after he or she leaves office. In Pierce's case, the deadline is Jan. 20.