The Magazine

COUNSELGATE, AGAIN

Oct 23, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 06 • By BYRON YORK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

REMEMBER HUD-GATE? How about Passportgate? Or Espy-gate? These major and minor scandals, some many years old, all have something in common: They're still costing the taxpayers millions of dollars.

The General Accounting Office has released an audit of independent counsels whose investigations were still underway or whose bills were still being tallied during the period from September 30, 1994, to March 31, 1995. They are Arlin Adams on the HUD scandal; Joseph diGenova on the possibly illicit search of Bill Clinton's passport files at the Bush State Department; Donald Smaltz on the activities of now-deposed Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy; Kenneth Starr and Robert Fiske on Whitewater; and, the granddaddy of them all, Lawrence Walsh on Iran-Contra (yes, Walsh is still spending money).

The numbers are impressive -- not surprising, since there is literally no way for any political body in Washington to exercise oversight on an independent counsel's spending once he has been assigned to an investigation. Below is a list of the amounts charged to each counsel's account during the six-month period, followed by the total taxpayer expenditure for each investigation.

The Gates of Hell CounselPast 6 monthsTotal HUD-gate$ 1,253,812$ 23,012,187 Passport-gate335, 5662,340,543 Whitewater6,879,57314,672,680 Espy-gate1,417,2591, 445,150 Iran-Contra118,47747,391,940

The $ 23 million spent on the HUD investigation is easily the most defensible. Arlin Adams's operation has been by far the most successful of any independent counsel; unlike many investigators, he had the luxury of going after people who had actually committed crimes. Adams, who recently retired and was replaced by Lawrence Thompson, won 16 convictions or guilty pleas, as well as millions of dollars in fines.

Apparently the only matter still left unresolved is the prosecution of former Interior Secretary James Watt, accused of lying to Congress and to a grand jury. That trial is scheduled for January, so look for the final HUD price tag to rise significantly.

But $ 2.3 million for Passport-gate? Last year diGenova announced he would not bring criminal charges against any former Bush administration officials. DiGenova later presented his report to the three-judge panel that appointed him -- and then shut down his operation. But the judges have not yet approved the report's release. It is said to be quite lengthy; look for Passport-gate to cost even more when it is finally published, most likely next month.

How about that $ 14.7 million already for Whitewater? It's the fastest- growing independent counsel bill by far. Making extensive use of the FBI, and operating out of offices in Washington and Little Rock, Starr spent well over $ 1 million a month during the six-month period audited by the GAO (leftover bills from the Fiske investigation accounted for a small portion of that).

Since the GAO report covers spending only through March 31 of this year, it's likely Starr has now passed the $ 20 million mark. At that rate, it seems possible the Whitewater total may someday rival that of Iran-Contra; most observers believe Starr's recent request for a delay in further Senate Whitewater hearings was a signal that he has a long way yet to go.

Does it really require $ 1.4 million to go after Mike Espy? For a while, it looked like Independent Counsel Smaltz would turn into a loose cannon, going far beyond Espy's plane rides and Super Bowl tickets to probe all sorts of Arkansas corruption.

Then, last July, a federal judge decided Smaltz had overstepped his bounds and drew some limits around the Espy probe. Still, Smaltz racked up the second-highest spending during the period audited, and the investigation goes on.

Finally, Lawrence Walsh. Even though his final report was made public in January 1994, and he closed his office in March of that year, the $ 47.4 million he's spent so far isn't the last of it. The costs of the Iran-Contra investigation are still incomplete, and will remain so for a while.

According to the GAO, the Walsh office may still owe some former staffers retroactive retirement benefits, and Walsh continues to pay unemployment benefits (they accounted for $ 28,511 of his most recent spending total). " These costs," says the GAO, "may continue in future periods depending upon the former employees' status." So far, Walsh's grand total for Iran-Contra is $ 47,391,940.

Meanwhile, new investigations are under way. Daniel Pearson, the independent counsel appointed to investigate the business dealings of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, and David Barrett, the counsel investigating HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, were not yet in business during the audit period. But they are now, and are most surely spending lots of money. Look for some dazzling new totals when the next audit is due in March 1996.