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The HUD Probe

THE House subcommittee investigating the scandal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development was well within the spirit of fair play last week when it issued subpoenas to former HUD secretary Samuel Pierce. His lawyers call the summonses ``vindictive,'' but Mr. Pierce has been trifling with the lawmakers, leaving them little choice but to haul him in. When Pierce requested additional time to retain a lawyer, the subcommittee postponed his scheduled Aug. 3 testimony to Sept. 15. The day before he was to appear, though, Pierce backed out, saying he was unprepared. Given the many months during which the mess has been developing, it's hardly credible that Pierce lacked time to get ready.

Since he first testified in May, witnesses and documents have directly contradicted Pierce's assertions that he was not involved in the influence peddling. It's time, when he makes his first of three command appearances tomorrow, for Pierce to explain the discrepancies.

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A member of Congress has called for a special prosecutor in the HUD probe, complaining that the Justice Department is sluggish in pursuing alleged criminality. We see no need for a special prosecutor, certainly not yet. There isn't evidence now that any official at the Justice Department is implicated in the scandal or even has a conflict of interest. The special-prosecutor law should be reserved for such occasions.

At times - such as Watergate and Iran-contra - it's necessary to give an independent prosecutor unlimited time and money to pursue a single investigation. But, as the history of special prosecutions since Watergate shows, the system can be abused - witness the long, costly, harassing, and ultimately futile investigation of former Justice Department aide Theodore Olson. For now, there's every reason to think that the HUD matter is fully within the competence of the Justice Department to handle, with the fair and reasonable application of prosecutorial discretion.

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