Echoing a false claim by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, CNN host and nationally syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak accused Democratic senators of secretly attempting to suppress the report of the independent counsel investigating former Clinton cabinet secretary Henry Cisneros. Three Democratic senators introduced legislation to de-fund the investigation effective June 1. In fact, the proposed funding cut would not prevent the report's release.
In his May 5 column, Novak wrote: "A Senate rider inserted in an emergency appropriations bill in the dead of night, which would close a rare window into political foul play at the Internal Revenue Service, was quietly removed Tuesday in Senate-House negotiations." Novak was referring to an amendment [S AMDT 399 to HR 1268] to the supplemental appropriation for Iraq and Afghanistan -- sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and cosponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) -- that would eliminate funding for independent counsel David Barrett's investigation into Cisneros, Clinton's one-time secretary of Housing and Urban Development, effective June 1.
The Senate passed the amendment by unanimous consent as part of its version of the bill, but according to Novak, House negotiators on the House-Senate conference stripped the amendment after Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Jim DeMint (R-SC), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and James M. Inhofe (R-OK) sent a letter to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, asking that the investigation's funding not be cut because "there is the risk that the final report on this investigation will not be released." But the letter provides no reason why the amendment might pose that risk.
Novak claimed that "[p]assage of the amendment probably would have meant Barrett's voluminous report on the Cisneros case never would see the light of day." Barrett's report, however, has already been submitted to a three-judge panel for review, as Novak himself acknowledged, and de-funding an independent counsel investigation after its report has been submitted for judicial review would not prevent the report's release. According to 28 USC 594(h)(2), a federal law governing independent counsels, the court has ultimate authority to release such reports to the public: "The division of the court may release to the Congress, the public, or any appropriate person, such portions of a report made under this subsection as the division of the court considers appropriate."
In 1995, Barrett was appointed to investigate allegations that Cisneros lied about money he paid to a mistress. Cisneros pleaded guilty to those charges in 1999 and paid a $10,000 fine, but the investigation kept going and continued to receive federal funding -- including $1.26 million in the last six months of fiscal 2004. "Barrett stayed in business to investigate whether anyone in the Clinton administration had attempted to obstruct justice during the probe," according to an April 1 Washington Post article.
In a letter to the Journal, Dorgan, Kerry, and Durbin criticized the Cisneros probe because it has cost taxpayers than $21 million over a decade. The letter, which was a response to an April 22 Journal editorial similarly accusing the three senators of suppressing the report, flatly refuted the Journal's accusation. "The amendment doesn't prevent the publication of the report, it just closes the outrageously expensive Independent Counsel's office," the senators wrote.
As Media Matters for America noted, despite the fact that the accusation of a cover-up was false, the Journal nevertheless touted the letter as "a small victory," claiming that the Democrats were "now saying they want the independent counsel report investigating IRS abuses related to the Henry Cisneros tax-fraud case to be made public." Novak lent credence to the Journal's dubious "victory" by noting that the senators' letter "marked the first mention by the de-funders about making the report public."