[INSIGHT]Use the Independent Counsel Law Wisely

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[INSIGHT]Use the Independent Counsel Law Wisely

As Chuseok fades into memory, the Lee Yong-ho scandal is drawing more attention. In a swift move, the ruling and opposition parties agreed in principle to name an independent counsel to investigate the scandal. That is probably the only way the suspicions surrounding the matter can be cleared up.

The naming of an independent counsel is an expression of distrust in the administration, and in particular of the prosecution. That was inevitable; powerful figures in the prosecution are allegedly involved, and even the younger brother of the prosecutor-general is implicated.

If an independent counsel is appointed, can the wrangle over the investigation's fairness be quenched? Can an independent counsel clear up all doubts, leaving no stones unturned? The independent counsel's investigation may be fair and conducted well, but questions about thoroughness may be left unanswered. It is impossible for a small independent counsel team to outdo the effectiveness and experience of the huge prosecution organization. The independent counsel team may not get true cooperation from investigative agencies, including the prosecution, which may feel alienated.

The U.S. independent counsel law, passed in 1978, was allowed to lapse in 1992 after being extended several times. In 1994 the law was revived, with a five-year lifetime. In the 19 years since the U.S. independent counsel law was enacted, 20 independent counsels have indicted persons in only four cases and dropped the other 13 cases, while spending $148.5 million. The sex scandal investigation of President Bill Clinton triggered distrust of the independent counsel system because of the time and money allegedly wasted as well as suspicions of political partiality.

Two years ago, an independent counsel investigated a senior prosecutor who said that he instigated the labor union of a state-run mint corporation to discredit the labor movement. Another independent counsel probed a bribery scandal in which wives of a minister and a prosecutor general allegedly received fur coats from a business tycoon's wife. Neither investigation seemed very effective. Because the independent counsels were not given indictment powers and their investigations were limited in time and extent, the people's illusions about special counsels were shattered. The threat of an independent counsel may well be more important as a prod to prosecutors to do their job correctly. If the prosecution does its job well, there is no need for an independent counsel.

The special investigation division of the Tokyo District Prosecutors Office detained former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei in 1976 in the Lockheed bribery scandal. Japanese prosecutors have a good reputation for far-reaching investigations, so there is no independent counsel system there and no calls for one to be established.

Here, prosecutors are not trusted to investigate influential political figures or their own colleagues, so outside pressure, in the form of an independent counsel law, needs to be on the books to force fair and independent investigations. If independent counsels are needed, they should be given the right to indict and to conduct full investigations with generous or no time limits. But that law should be used sparingly. Like countries that have nuclear arms but do not use them, a special counsel law is a deterrent to prosecutorial misbehavior.

Using the same logic, I hope that the ruling and opposition parties will not rush to name an independent counsel in the Lee Yong-ho case, even though they have agreed to introduce one. I hope they will wait and see what the special audit team in the prosecution office comes up with; the prosecution has promised that no one or nothing will be off-limits. If the prosecutors use their full capacity and resources, no other organization can do a better investigation than they can. The same prosecution that beat around the bush in a scandal during the Roh Tae-woo administration quickly disclosed in the next administration that Mr. Roh had a large slush fund when he was in office. In the last year of the Kim Young-sam administration, the central investigation division of the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office detained President Kim's son, acting impartially. I do not think the prosecutors under this administration are inferior to those who detained son of an incumbent president.

The state prosecutors should think about their reputation. If they cannot do a fair and strict investigation of this scandal, they will be dead in people's minds.

Prosecutors' prestige drops to the level of being ridiculed by people. It is misery for the prosecution and a crisis for the nation. I hope the special audit team can do a good job in this case so that there is nothing further to be revealed by an independent counsel.


The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Seong Byong-wook

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