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Thursday, July 1, 1999 Published at 03:44 GMT 04:44 UK

World: Americas

End of the special prosecutor

Millions of dollars were spent investigating President Clinton

The legislation which allowed special prosecutors to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by top US Government officials has expired.

The BBC's Philippa Thomas in Washington: "The public overdosed"
Few are mourning the death of a law introduced 21 years ago in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

But there is some concern that there will be no one left with the independent authority to investigate future allegations against Washington's political elite.

President Bill Clinton felt the full force of the powerful independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

He had to fight an impeachment hearing in the Senate after Mr Starr investigated his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

[ image: Oliver North: Questioned over Arms-to-Iran affair]
Oliver North: Questioned over Arms-to-Iran affair
Other presidents and their senior politicians have also faced the independent counsel.

Gerald Ford was forced to deny he had agreed a deal with Richard Nixon that would pardon the disgraced president.

And President Ronald Reagan's administration had to answer questions over the Arms-to-Iran affair, which alleged that cash from arms sales was diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras.

Watergate affair

[ image: Richard Nixon: His actions prompted the law]
Richard Nixon: His actions prompted the law
The independent counsel law was created in 1978 and was designed to allow prosecutors to operate free from political constraints.

The independent prosecutors were to investigate the most serious crimes among the country's most powerful people.

But critics say the law gave rise to a series of prosecutors with unlimited power and budgets, who could pursue cases for a political agenda.

The independent counsel law has been invoked 20 times for investigations of both Republican and Democratic officials - seven of those inquiries occurring in the Clinton administration.

Five independent counsels, with ongoing investigations, will complete their work after the law expires.

Power concerns

The long-running investigations into President Clinton's affair with Ms Lewinsky raised the profile of the special prosecutors but it also helped bring about their demise.

Even Mr Starr, whose inquiry into the president led to an impeachment trial, says the law is now flawed beyond repair.

During the Clinton investigation, Americans became disillusioned with the role of the independent prosecutor, and the amount of money Mr Starr was spending in pursuing the president.

There was also serious concern at the power wielded by the prosecutor.

Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said: "We've had a number of independent counsels who have acted too often with effectively unlimited power."

'Constitutional gremlin'

The law has critics on both sides of the political fence, as well as in powerful groups such as the American Bar Association.

[ image: Kenneth Starr: Wants law axed]
Kenneth Starr: Wants law axed
Mary Cheh, a George Washington University law professor said: "The statute creates a constitutional gremlin unleashed to work on behalf of the president's opponents."

Attorney General Janet Reno also told Congress earlier this year the law should be scrapped.

She said the Justice Department was capable of investigating allegations against top government officials.

A minority in Washington are concerned at the Justice Department taking over the role - a reversal to pre-Watergate days.

Joseph Lieberman, a senior Democratic senator, said: "Those who may be chosen to conduct those investigations will be appointed by the attorney general and subject to termination without appeal by the attorney general. That is not independence."

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