WASHINGTON — Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson (R-TN) today announced he recommends letting the Independent Counsel Act expire and will propose legislation giving the Attorney General the discretion to appoint a special counselwhen it is clear an investigation must be conducted by someone outside the Administration.
“This legislation would state unambiguously that the attorney general has discretion to bring in outside counsel to specifically investigate and/or prosecute criminal matters,” Senator Thompson said. “We should give the responsibility and accountability back to the Justice Department and hold them accountable.”
Under Thompson?s proposal, the special counsel would answer to the attorney general, who would determine the jurisdiction for the special counsel?s investigation. A person subject to the special counsel?s investigation would be unable to challenge that jurisdiction in court.
Thompson said the operation of the special counsel, including the standard for his or her removal, regular reporting requirements to the attorney general, and other administrative matters, would be established through regulations that the attorney general would promulgate within 60 days of the bill?s passage. The regulations would not take effect unless Congress enacted a law to approve them within 60 days after submission. If Congress did not approve them, the attorney general would be required to submit new ones to the Congress. The regulations adopted could not be changed without Congress passing a new law confirming them.
Thompson said the Independent Counsel statute has sacrificed accountability, as the attorney general has shown that she can render it a nullity by simply refusing to enforce it. Because of the definitions and qualifications of the statute, the attorney general has been able to direct attention into arcane and complex issues of statutory interpretation instead of having to address the simple, straightforward issue of whether public confidence would be substantially enhanced if an independent third party examined a particular situation.
“We had a long tradition of appointing special counsels in cases of conflict before we ever had an Independent Counsel statute,” said Thompson, noting Teapot Dome, Watergate, and others. “However, the responsibility for hiring or refusing to hire special counsels rested clearly with the Justice Department and therefore, the Executive Branch. And they were faced with a political price for making the wrong decision.”