There is no shortage of things to be outraged about these days depending on one’s philosophic, political or religious leanings. Daily eruptions stem from Iraq and abortion and the right to die and Social Security proposals and bad intelligence to name but a few.
But sometimes it is the smaller things that really inflame one’s ire, the non-momentous incidents that we can all understand are stupid and just plain wrong. One of those was revealed in a government report the other day, triggering an instant rush of anger mainly because it concerned a sanctioned abuse that most of us thought had been put to rest once and for all, the independent counsel law – that woefully ill-advised piece of pure political legislation that never should have seen the light of day in the first place and was allowed to expire because of the avoidable amount of grief it caused, including the impeachment of a president.
It seems that during the last six months of 2004, David M. Barrett, an independent counsel, spent $1.26 million of taxpayers’ money on a case that was settled in 1999. What is more, the report noted, the total cost of Barrett’s investigation over 10 years into allegations against then-Housing secretary Henry Cisneros is approaching $21 million, rivaling some of the most expensive inquiries in the history of the act, including Iran-Contra and the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton affair.
What makes this so outrageous is that Cisneros’ crime, to which he pleaded guilty and paid a $10,000 fine more than five years ago, was lying to the FBI about how much money he paid a mistress over the years, not that he denied the affair but that he had underreported his support of her when questioned. By the time Barrett, appointed in 1995 to go after Cisneros, agreed to Cisneros’ plea he already had spent more than $10 million, prompting Washington wags to comment in words that can’t be printed in a family newspaper that the taxpayers were the real victims of this illicit affair without any benefit of love making.
Now one would think that would be the end of the matter. Clinton pardoned Cisneros and the former San Antonio mayor who often was mentioned as a potential presidential candidate has moved on to a productive career in business.
But Barrett decided that his work was not done. He has spent the next five years trying to determine without success whether anyone in the Clinton administration tried to obstruct justice in his investigation. He was backed up by a three-judge panel, which oversaw the original inquiry. The cost of this was more than $1 million every six months mainly for salaries, travel, outside contractors and office space. It seemed that Barrett had set up a law firm at government expense.
According to the Government Accountability Office, Barrett somehow overcame demands from Congress to shut down, continuing to spend at levels far in excess of another investigation that is currently being conducted by a special counsel into who leaked the name of an undercover CIA operative to a syndicated columnist. That counsel, the GAO said, spent $611,000 for 2004 compared to Barrett’s $2.13 million.
Even more outlandish in this sorry business is that the judicial overseers in 2003 ordered Barrett to close up shop and prepare a report. He apparently still hasn’t done so, telling the GAO that his 2004 expenses were in conjunction with that effort. Really? It takes an entire year to report on an investigation that for all intents and purposes has been moribund for the last five years? Most Americans, including this one, didn’t even know their pockets were still being picked by this guy.
Cisneros was hardly a household name outside the Beltway and his targeting in the affair to which he readily admitted was due in part to the post-Watergate zeal that was still hanging around two decades afterward. Every time there was an allegation of impropriety by a government official, congressional foes of the party in power demanded the matter be handed to an independent counsel on grounds it couldn’t be trusted to the Justice Department.
The cost of these counsels has been enormous, millions and millions of dollars, with little to show for it. Cisneros was accused of lying to the FBI (which of course never lies about anything) as to how much money he had paid a girlfriend. It was actually something like $200,000 to $250,000. Big deal. It cost us $21 million to find that out.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)