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 Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community...
, 2000   
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Published on Monday, August 21, 2000 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Look Out, Here They Come Again
The Real Story In Post-Convention America Is The Subversion Of Both Major Parties By The Big Money Contributions Of Large Corporations
by Russ Baker
The other day, near the Staples Center, where the Democratic National Convention was under way, Los Angeles police arrested more than 70 bicycle riders from an anti-automobile organization. The cyclists' alleged crime: pedalling the wrong way down a one-way street. The riders, however, insisted they had been co-operating with police, even riding with a police escort, which, for whatever reason, suddenly forced them down that one-way street.

The cyclists' accusation -- that the LAPD had created a prosecutable crime out of thin air -- got little press coverage. Yet it struck some observers as an eerie parallel to the big news that President Bill Clinton is yet again facing a grand jury investigation. One could almost hear foreheads smacking from coast to coast.

If Canadians have trouble understanding why an investigation is still dragging on into Mr. Clinton's prevarications about his high jinks with Monica Lewinsky, rest assured that Americans have no greater insight into the matter.

For offences that the courts and the people of the United States have decided was not a Nixonian attempt to subvert the Constitution, Mr. Clinton has already paid a $90,000 fine and been impeached but not convicted by a highly partisan Congress. For giving false and misleading answers regarding the Lewinsky affair, he still faces disciplinary action that could result in his disbarment as a lawyer. Yet, as the Democratic convention showed and the polls confirm, he remains a hugely popular president.

Why, then, the continued legal manoeuvring, after six years of investigation and more than $50-million spent so far?

A number of possible answers come to mind. First and most obvious is politics. The timing of the announcement, leaked to The Associated Press and broken just hours before Al Gore was to be nominated as the next Democratic standard-bearer, was initially eyed with suspicion, since the grand jury was secretly empanelled on July 11. After all, the news had remained a secret for more than a month. Although that particular conspiracy bubble was punctured Friday when a Democrat-appointed judge admitted to having been the inadvertent leaker, the overall politicization of the legal process remains a reality.

The three-judge panel that gave the prosecutor the go-ahead this week to continue his investigation for another year is headed by David Sentelle, a man in the thick of the conservative establishment who was handpicked by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee.

This is important, for as well-liked as Mr. Clinton is, he remains the best, and perhaps only, scandal pop-up doll that can be reactivated in the service of the Republicans -- if only in a "progress" report that an independent prosecutor is moving forward to build a case he will not actually prosecute until after Mr. Clinton becomes a private citizen next January. Besides, how else to catch the commander-in-chief but in the one act he can't blame on a subordinate?

Another force behind the seemingly inexorable Lewinsky case is the nature of the independent counsel statute itself. Congress has allowed this legislation, which authorized and funds the current prosecutor, Robert Ray, as it did his controversial, zealous predecessor, Kenneth Starr, to lapse. Yet by a kind of grandfathering, the current investigations are permitted to continue indefinitely at the prosecutors' discretion. One big problem with the independent counsel is that the same qualities that permit good prosecutors to do quality work also gives crusaders with less worthy motives carte blanche to act irresponsibly.

The independent counsel is truly independent -- not accountable to anyone else in terms of his priorities, his budget, or the duration of his investigation. By contrast, most American prosecutors (federal, state and local) are accountable -- directly elected in some jurisdictions, appointed by, and removable by, elected officials in others.

Another factor is simply the motivation of the prosecutor. Having taken over from Mr. Starr in October of 1999, neither Mr. Ray nor his staff who are doing this interesting (and ideologically congenial) work at comfortable salaries has any incentive to shut down the investigation quickly.

Perhaps the most important factor has to do with what might be called the legal mindset. As a friend of mine who attended law school but chose, instead, the activist-writer life put it, the training of lawyers generally involves instilling a sense of indignation over minutiae without concern for context. In this regard, they are often abetted, as we have seen throughout the Clinton-Lewinsky matter, by co-conspirators in the journalistic world.

The real story in post-convention America is the subversion of both major parties, and of the democratic process itself, by the big money contributions of large corporations. That is the inchoate message of the demonstrators in the streets -- and on that count, Mr. Clinton, along with the major Republican figures of the past few years, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and now George W. Bush -- are surely guilty.

To investigate the enormous toll that corporate bribery -- to call "soft money" by its real name -- has had on public participation, on the environment, on safety and health, would keep an independent counsel legitimately busy for decades. First, though, you would need to make these activities as illegal as riding the wrong way down a one-way street.

Russ Baker is a New York-based journalist whose work has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Esquire, The Nation, the London Observer and the Columbia Journalism Review.

Copyright 2000 Globe Interactive



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