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Last Gasp For I-Counsel Law

The controversial independent counsel law expires Wednesday after a two-decade run, a tab of almost $150 million and investigations of the last four administrations.

It might as well have been called the law of unintended consequences, reports CBS White House Correspondent Bill Plante.

The law was created 21 years ago in the wake of Watergate as a means of keeping public officials honest. At the time, Republicans and Democrats thought it was a fine idea. But times have changed.

Â"We think itÂ's broken beyond repair, and it ought to expire,Â" said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

But that wasnÂ't always how the Clinton administration felt.

Exactly five years ago, President Clinton signed into law the extension of the Independent Counsel Act. At the time, Mr. Clinton, in a statement, hailed the act as ensuring Â"that no one is above the lawÂ" and called it Â"a force for government integrity and public confidence.Â"

But that was before the president himself became the focus of independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

Five years and more than $40 million later, StarrÂ's investigation of Whitewater, Travelgate and Monica Lewinsky have soured everyone, including Starr himself.

"If politicization and the loss of public confidence are inevitable, then we should leave the full responsibility where our laws and traditions place it, on the attorney general," Starr said.

The statute, he added, was "constitutionally dubious" and left room for abuse by counsels empowered by it.

"I voted for it. I made a mistake," said the Senate's top Democrat, Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "I believe it was well-intended, but misguided. I would much prefer to handle (these) matters in the future within the Department of Justice."

Attorney General Janet Reno says her Justice Department stands ready to take over the job of appointing special prosecutors to investigate misconduct by high-ranking government officials.

"Our regulations will be ready by July 1," she told reporters last week.

As the law expires, Webster Hubbell pleads guilty in a plea bargain arrangement with Kenneth StarrÂ's office.

He wonÂ't go to jail, but that winds up StarrÂ's open prosecutions. So StarrÂ's entire investigation could well be wrapped up by the end of the year.

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