Case History November 2005

White House Sleuths

Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor doggedly investigating the Valerie Plame leak, is something of a throwback. Since Watergate most major investigations of high-level political corruption have been undertaken by "independent counsels"—individuals almost entirely outside the purview of the Justice Department, wielding unlimited budgets and nearly limitless authority. Before that "special counsels"—who were selected by, answerable to, and subject to being fired or financially hamstrung by the attorney general—were the norm. Fitzgerald fits into the latter category. Should the public be concerned? If the history of the special counsel is any guide, perhaps Fitzgerald himself should be. As it turns out, special counsels have outed the truth in some of government's biggest scandals—but at times they've been treated unkindly for their efforts when the truth has implicated powerful figures in the White House. Here are some major investigations by special counsels in the past, as identified by the American Enterprise Institute—Brookings Institution Project on the Independent Counsel Statute.

The Whiskey Ring. 1875. The former U.S. senator John B. Henderson was asked to look into a conspiracy: distillers were under-reporting their hooch and splitting the saved taxes with corrupt Treasury officials. Several hundred indictments were obtained, and a mid-level official was convicted. Henderson went a little too high up when he indicted President Ulysses S. Grant's personal secretary and implied that the president had some involvement in the case. Henderson was fired. Shortly thereafter Grant had to dismiss the secretary for using privileged government information to play the gold market.

Teapot Dome. 1924-1930. Calvin Coolidge selected the Democrat Atlee Pomerene and the Republican Owen Roberts to look into accusations that the secretary of the interior, Albert B. Fall, had leased rights to develop the Navy's oil reserves to two businessmen in exchange for bribes of $409,000 along with six heifers, a yearling bull, two boars, four sows, and an English thoroughbred. (Fall's neighbors had become suspicious about improvements to his ranch.) Senators told Pomerene and Roberts to be wary of the attorney general, who "had a hand in every dirty piece of business." Ultimately, Fall landed in jail, and the attorney general (among others) resigned. For their trouble the special counsels and their firms had to cover many of the investigation's costs until the government finally picked up the tab.

Truman Tax Scandals. 1952. Newbold Morris, a New York Republican, was made a special counsel to plumb accusations that the Department of Justice had looked the other way while Internal Revenue Service collectors took illegal payments. Backed by President Harry Truman, Morris asked the attorney general, J. Howard McGrath, to disclose financial records and notes. McGrath refused, and fired Morris after just sixty-three days on the case; Truman quickly secured the attorney general's resignation.

The Carter Peanut Warehouse. 1979. Paul Curran, a former U.S. attorney in New York, investigated allegations that President Jimmy Carter had used his peanut warehouse as a front for illegal campaign contributions in 1976. Within seven months Curran cleared Carter. He wrote, "Every nickel and every peanut have been traced into and out of the Warehouse, and no funds were unlawfully diverted in either direction."

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