A former federal prosecutor is calling on Congress to re-establish an independent counsel law so that investigators like Robert Mueller will have more self-determination in the future.
“How did we arrive at this moment?” Michael Zeldin, a former Mueller employee at the Justice Department, wrote in a CNN column published Saturday. “Why, unlike the reports of previous independent counsels, is Mueller’s unredacted report not being provided to Congress or the American people?”
With the “inevitable fight” that’s soon to unfold between Congress and Attorney General Bill Barr over the release and redaction of Mueller’s report, Zeldin urged lawmakers to ask themselves one burning question: “How can we avoid a similar situation in the future?”
“My answer: It is time to bring back the Independent Counsel statute,” the ex-prosecutor declared.
Zeldin, like many others, noted that independent counsel regulations were put into effect in 1978 (and in the shadow of Watergate) “to remove the inherent conflict of interest that could arise when the Justice Department was investigating the President and other top Executive Branch officials.”
After independent counsel Ken Starr’s “detailed, and what some considered unnecessarily salacious, report” about then-President Bill Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, however, Congress allowed the former law to expire in 1999. The Justice Department then drafted special counsel regulations — the same ones that governed Mueller’s investigation.
Though the concerns that ultimately led to the end of the independent counsel law were valid, Zeldin wrote, it let to the predicament presented by the DOJ’s oversight in the release of his report — an issue that did not exist under the previous regulations.
The independent counsel law’s protocol included investigators’ submission of the final report to a court that then decided to release all or part of the report to the public, the ex-prosecutor noted. It also gave Congress oversight of the release of the report and required independent counsels “to advise the House of Representatives of any substantial and credible evidence that may constitute grounds for an impeachment.”
Though President Donald Trump never did fire Mueller, his ability to do so — and his attempts to wield that power as a political bludgeon — would also have been eliminated had the independent counsel law still been active.
Under the previous law, only attorneys general could fire independent counsels, Zeldin noted, and they could get a judicial review after being removed to determine if the firing was improper.
Finally, the ex-prosecutor noted, the independent counsel law declared that investigators had “much greater authority and discretion” than special counsel regulations.
The only way for Congress to “remedy” the many problems presented by the executive branch during and after Mueller’s investigation, Zeldin concluded, is for them to reauthorize the independent counsel law.