Allegation Nation: A Brief History of Presidents and Special Prosecutors

With lingering questions about Russian influence in the last U.S. presidential election, some legislators and citizens have called for a special prosecutor. Just how common is the use of a special prosecutor, and when have they been appointed in the past?

The federal government has been using special prosecutors since 1875.  In 1978, after Watergate, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act, which established formal rules for appointing a special prosecutor. Starting in 1983, these investigators were referred to as an independent counsel. The Ethics in Government Act expired in 1999, and the only person who can currently appoint a special prosecutor is the attorney general. Regulations are in place that limit the authority of the attorney general over a special prosecutor, but without a law in place, the enforceability of these regulations in unproven. Congress can’t independently appoint a special prosecutor without first passing a new law allowing them to do so. Before becoming law, the bill must, of course, be signed by the president.

Here’s a table of the men and women who have served as special prosecutor or independent counsel, the issue that each investigated, and the outcome. Special prosecutors have been appointed 29 times. President Clinton leads with 12 separate inquiries; President Reagan is a distant second with six.

History of Special Prosecutors and Independent Counsels

Year President Special Prosecutor / Independent Counsel Issue Outcome
1875 Ulysses Grant John Henderson Politicians, whiskey producers, and government employees stealing alcohol tax revenues There were 110 convictions, $3 million in recovered taxes, and an abiding air of corruption attached to the Grant administration.
1881 James Garfield William Cook Post Office officials taking bribes to award highly lucrative postal delivery routes The “Star Route” scheme was shut down, but there were few convictions.
1903 Theodore Roosevelt Judge Holmes Conrad, Charles Bonaparte Bribery in the Department of the Post Office Three hundred post office officials and private contractors were convicted.
1905 Theodore Roosevelt Francis Heney A railroad’s use of fraud to obtain resources on federal land Over a thousand indictments were issued, but Heney narrowed prosecution to 35 people, including a senator and two congressmen, who all eventually escaped punishment.
1921 Calvin Coolidge Atlee Pomerene, Owen Roberts The sale to corporations of oil held in reserve for the U.S. Navy, most notably at Teapot Dome, WY Teapot Dome led to the first conviction and imprisonment of a former Cabinet officer.
1952 Harry Truman Newbold Morris Corruption within the IRS Attorney General Howard McGrath fired Morris. Truman fired McGrath. Over 160 IRS employees were fired.
1973 Richard Nixon Archibald Cox The burglary of the democratic headquarters at the Watergate office complex, and its subsequent cover-up Nixon, unwilling to cooperate with Cox, ordered AG Elliot Richardson, then Deputy AG William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. They resigned instead. Solicitor General Robert Bork stepped in to dismiss Cox. The next year, the House Judiciary Committee filed the first impeachment charge. Nixon resigned two weeks later.


1978 Jimmy Carter Arthur Hill Christy Accusations that Carter’s chief of staff had used cocaine No one was indicted.
1980 Jimmy Carter Gerald Gallinghouse Accusations that Carter’s campaign manager had used drugs No one was indicted.
1981 Ronald Reagan Leon Silverman Organized crime connections of Labor Secretary Ray Donovan No one was indicted.
1984 Ronald Reagan Jacob Stein Accusations of AG Edwin Meese’s preferential treatment of a defense contractor No one was indicted, but Meese resigned when Stein’s report was submitted.
1986 Ronald Reagan Alexia Morrison Obstruction of justice by Theodore Olsen, legal counsel to the president No one was indicted.


1986 Ronald Reagan Lawrence Walsh Charges that administration officials had secretly sold arms to Iran despite an arms embargo against that country At least 12 individuals were indicted, including the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor, and many were convicted, but all were pardoned, granted immunity, or given probation.
1987 Ronald Reagan James McKay Charges that former White House aide Lyn Nofziger engaged in improper lobbying after leaving office No one was indicted.
1987 Ronald Reagan James Harper Charges of income tax evasion by Assistant AG Lawrence Wallace No one was indicted.


1990 George Bush Arlin Adams Charges that Samuel Pierce, HUD Secretary, had sold his influence while serving in Reagan’s cabinet Several of Pierce’s aides were convicted on felony charges of favoritism, but Pierce was never charged.


1992 Bill Clinton Joseph diGenova Possible illegal search of the passport files of President Clinton by officials of the former Bush administration No one was indicted.
1993 Bill Clinton Kenneth Starr Accusations that Bill and Hillary Clinton had fired employees of the White House Travel Office to give the jobs to their friends Neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton were indicted.
1994 Bill Clinton Kenneth Starr Charges of improper behavior by Clinton in the sale of property from the Whitewater Development Corporation Neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton were indicted, but some of their former business partners were, and 15 of them were convicted.
1994 Bill Clinton Donald Smaltz Charges that Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy had accepted improper gifts Espy was indicted, but later acquitted, of all 30 criminal charges.
1994 Bill Clinton Kenneth Starr, Robert Ray Death of White House Counsel Vincent W. Foster No one was indicted.
1995 Bill Clinton David Barrett Charges that Henry Cisneros, Clinton’s HUD Secretary, had lied to the FBI during background checks Cisneros was indicted on 18 counts of conspiracy and obstructing justice, but later pardoned by Clinton.


1995 Bill Clinton Daniel Pearson Charges that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown had sold seats on U.S. federal planes on an international trade mission No one was indicted.
1996 Bill Clinton Curt Von Kann Accusations that Eli Segal, former Clinton chief of staff, had violated conflict of interest rules while fundraising No one was indicted.


1996 Bill Clinton Kenneth Starr Charges of improper review of confidential FBI files of members of previous administrations No one was indicted.
1998 Bill Clinton Carol Elder Bruce Charges that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt improperly intervened in an American Indian tribe’s application to open a casino No one was indicted.
1998 Bill Clinton Ralph Lancaster Charges of influence-peddling and solicitation of illegal campaign contributions by Labor Secretary Alexis Herman No one was indicted.
1998 Bill Clinton Kenneth Starr Charges that Clinton perjured himself when questioned about sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky Clinton was impeached but later acquitted by the Senate.
2005 George W. Bush Patrick Fitzgerald Suspicions that members of the State Department had leaked the identity of a covert CIA officer for political ends No one was indicted for the leak, but I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was convicted on four felony counts of making false statement, perjury, and obstruction of justice.

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