Jim Mokhiber provided reporting and research and Emily Kauff was the production assistant for "Secrets of an Independent
On September 9, 1994, a three-judge panel named California lawyer Donald
Smaltz to investigate charges that Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy had received
improper gifts from companies with business before his department.
For Smaltz, the appointment was a chance to join an elite group of twenty or
so independent counsels who have investigated criminal activity at the highest
levels of government.
The son of a Bethlehem steelworker and an Italian immigrant mother, Smaltz
attended Penn State University and Dickinson School of Law. After receiving
his law degree in 1961, Smaltz served as a trial attorney for the U.S. Army's
Judge Advocate General Corps. He then spent several years as Assistant United
States Attorney in Los Angeles, where he specialized in white-collar crime.
In 1975, after moving into private practice, Smaltz grabbed headlines when he
and another lawyer accused Watergate prosecutors of misconduct and persuaded a
judge to dismiss two indictments against President Nixon's personal tax lawyer.
Other high-profile clients have included the Teamsters and a bank with
extensive ties to the late Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his
During the Bush Administration, Smaltz was tempted to cross back over to the
prosecutor's side when the Special Division - then headed by Judge George
MacKinnon -- contacted him to ask if he would be interested in leading an
independent counsel probe into fraud and mismanagement at the Department of
Housing and Urban Development. Smaltz ultimately turned down the job.
In 1994, Smaltz accepted the offer to serve as independent counsel in the Espy
case -- a job that he originally expected to last six months, he says.
Though he has now served almost four years, and believes he may be around for
at least one Supreme Court case arising from his investigation, Smaltz has
retained a bit of the outsider's mentality. His investigation is based in Old
Town Alexandria, a fifteen minute drive from official Washington.
Most prosecutors seek to cultivate a relentless and aggressive image, and
Smaltz is no exception. The door to his office sports a poster-size version of
the broad mandate he was given by the court to investigate charges Mike Espy
had accepted improper gifts while Secretary of Agriculture. Above it Smaltz
has placed an inscription from Plato, which reads "The servants of the nation
are to render their services without any taking of presents...the disobedient
shall, if convicted, die without ceremony."