Special prosecutor defends cost of Iran-contra probe


WASHINGTON -- Independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, about to start the sixth year of the Iran-contra probe, says he is "constantly sensitive" about what he has spent -- nearly $30 million. But he makes no apology for what he has done so far and still plans to do.

Although he is well aware that Republicans in Congress and many conservatives wish that he had long since closed up shop, the publicly shy but privately strong-willed special prosecutor is not done yet.

There is a determination in his long stride up and down the hallways of a Washington office building that matches his commitment to see through the job he got five years ago next month -- a job the former Wall Street lawyer won't finish until some months after his 80th birthday, in January.

Sometime next year, perhaps late in the year, there could be a final report, and Mr. Walsh will go back to private life in Oklahoma City and end his commute to Washington to work up %% to four days a week.

By almost any measure, there has never been a criminal probe to equal this one in time or in cost -- approaching $28 million at last count and still going up at something like $400,000 a month.

The probe has gone through two grand juries here, through criminal courts here, in Baltimore and in Alexandria, Va., as well as appeals courts here and in Richmond, Va., and cases have gone to the Supreme Court -- twice.

Mr. Walsh has never lacked for critics. But their challenges have intensified as the bill for the Iran-contra probe has continued to rise, with no cap.

Representative Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., who favors having independent prosecutors look into high-level government scandal, commented in an interview that "it seems to me we've reached and gone beyond" any proper limits in the Walsh investigation. "Five years and $30 million -- for what, to me, are essentially minor violations. That seems to me very disproportionate."

He does not "fault" Mr. Walsh personally, he says, and has not looked into accusations he has heard that the prosecutor has spent lavishly.

The Illinois lawmaker is strongly critical of the fact that current law provides no mechanism for anyone to bring a special prosecutor's probe to an end. "There's no one to blow the whistle," he said, adding: "I'm sure the time has come [for Mr. Walsh] to fold up shop."

Terry Eastland, a former Justice Department official who has become an expert on the independent counsel law, noted the cost and length of the Walsh inquiry and asked: "What do we have to show for it? Very little in the way of actual crimes committed and successfully prosecuted" -- stressing the word "successfully."

Moreover, he said, Mr. Walsh's efforts have produced "very little in the way of new knowledge about this affair."

Mr. Eastland, however, blames the breadth of the Walsh investigation partly on former President Reagan for not asking the federal court that appoints independent prosecutors to define Mr. Walsh's assignment more narrowly.

Mr. Walsh, discussing in an interview here last week the costs he has run up and the achievements he sees, noted that he had to start from scratch to create what in essence was a major law firm. "We did not even have a yellow pad and a pencil" at the start of an assignment calling for an inquiry into the highest levels of the government and dealing with some of the nation's most closely guarded secrets, he said.

The prosecutor would not discuss what comes next. But he has one criminal case moving toward a trial -- provided that it is not wiped out by a dispute over defense lawyers' right to use classified documents.

It now seems quite likely that there will be at least one more trip to the Supreme Court as Mr. Walsh seeks to salvage the biggest case of all -- his case against retired Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter, national security adviser to President Reagan and the highest-ranking official convicted for crimes in the Iran-contra scandal or the attempted cover-up.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here, in a sweeping constitutional defeat for Mr. Walsh Nov. 15, overturned five guilty verdicts against Mr. Poindexter -- along with a six-month prison term -- and refused even to let the special prosecutor try to get those verdicts reinstated.

The only option the Circuit Court left Mr. Walsh was another trial of the admiral -- but only if Mr. Walsh could first show that the grand jury that charged him was not "tainted" by testimony he gave to Congress more than four years ago under a promise of legal immunity.

Mr. Walsh has not said whether he will ask the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling, but he has not been willing in the past to give in to the appeals court.

He tried, unsuccessfully, to take the "taint" issue to the Supreme Court in the case against Mr. Poindexter's former deputy, retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, who completed his sentence of 1,200 hours of community service before the Circuit Court set aside his three guilty verdicts last year. Just this fall, however, Mr. Walsh finally gave up on that case, unable to clear away the "taint" to a judge's satisfaction. The North case thus was scuttled.

In 1987, Mr. Walsh urged Congress not to give immunity to any key figures in the scandal. He warned that prosecution would be jeopardized by having to skirt immunized testimony -- especially testimony that was beamed by television to every corner of the land.

The congressional hearings, which made Mr. North an instant celebrity, brought out some of the story -- but by no means all -- of both parts of the Iran-contra affair: sales of U.S. arms to Iran in hopes of gaining the release of American hostages in the Mideast, and a "diversion" of the proceeds from inflated prices on those arms sales to buy guns, food and supplies for the pTC contra rebels then fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Mr. Walsh now blames the immunity problem in part for the high costs of his inquiry, at least in its early stages. He said last week that he had thought originally he could do the job with 10 lawyers but that he quickly changed his mind when faced with a need to gather the main evidence quickly, before any immunized witness testified.

"That was really forced on us," he said. "When it became clear that immunity was going to be granted, in the spring of 1987, I more than doubled the size [of the staff] I had originally planned."

His staff shot up to 28 lawyers and 53 aides that year. By the following fall, when he was gearing up for the North trial, the staff reached its peak: 35 lawyers and 65 aides. His office, which has no ceiling on what it can spend, was paying out more than a third of a million dollars a month in salaries.

In the early months, with aides traveling to Latin America and to Europe to trace the flow of money and arms, travel expenses at times reached a quarter of his monthly budget, then more than $500,000.

But Mr. Walsh did not try, in the interview, to justify the spending by counting up the convictions to date. In fact, he argued, "the convictions are a byproduct of the process" of his probe. "They are not a measure of the process."

The "process," he said, involved "a very thorough investigation, which has exposed misconduct and which could deter future misconduct."


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