Synopsis

In a rare interview with an active independent counsel, Donald Smaltz takes FRONTLINE inside his investigation of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. FRONTLINE correspondent Peter Boyer steps behind the current controversy about Kenneth Starr to find out what these independent counsels really want, how far they'll go to get it, and why they cost so much.

Smaltz is examining charges that Espy received various illegal gratuities from Arkansas's Tyson Foods and other companies regulated by his agency. So far, Smaltz's nearly four-year-long investigation has produced a thirty-nine count indictment against Espy and criminal convictions or pleas from ten individuals and companies.

Following Smaltz's trail through the Espy case, Boyer's report offers Smaltz's defense of his strategy and tactics. It also lays out the views of critics and those caught up in the investigation. When Smaltz sought to widen his probe into other alleged criminal wrongdoing by Tyson Foods (specifically,that the company had sent money to then-governor Bill Clinton) the targets of his investigation fought him, as did the Department of Justice. Tyson lawyer Tom Green accused Smaltz of being out of control and wrote a letter to Attorney General Reno requesting he be removed. Smaltz charges that Tyson had been able to pressure the Justice Department.

Smaltz again ran into opposition from the Justice Department when he turned to Mike Espy and his chief of staff, Ronald Blackley. Correspondent Boyer examines the controversial case against Blackley and whether or not it demonstrates the excesses and dangers of special prosecutors and their prosecutorial techniques.

The program concludes with the reflections of Sam Dash. He was chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee and argues that the independent counsel is the only alternative when serious charges are brought against high executive officials. The public, says Dash, wouldn't trust the executive branch of government to fully and fairly investigate itself.

However, in 1998 public opinion has turned against the office; many feel the case against the institution of the independent counsel is nearly won. Congress is expected to begin considering the fate of the independent counsel statute this year.

 


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