USA Today

The independent counsel investigation into the activities of former Agriculture secretary Mike Espy, which culminated Wednesday in a 39-count indictment, offers insight not only into the corruption of the Clinton Cabinet’s early days, but also into how hard it can be to get to the bottom of these cases.

Espy hasn’t been convicted of anything and is presumed innocent.  But the indictment that independent counsel Donald Smaltz obtained from a grand jury Wednesday paints a picture of a thoroughly corrupt official.

The charges center on gifts Espy allegedly received from some of the nation’s biggest agribusinesses, especially Arkansas poultry giant Tyson Foods. We’re not talking about million-dollar payoffs, however. These are matters of tickets to sporting events and free travel. In this sense, the indictment details petty corruption.  But the law is clear about what gifts executive branch officials can accept — darn few and, in many cases, none. The freebies Espy allegedly received totaled $ 35,000. That’s not grand larceny, but it’s hardly peanuts.

And it is simply not true that everything in this indictment is somehow petty. Smaltz also has charged Espy with witness tampering — ordering an Agriculture official to alter an incriminating document. That’s hardly something that can be sloughed off.

But in a way, the most interesting aspect of this case is its length. It took Smaltz nearly three years to indict Espy, a long time given the clear-cut nature of most of the charges – either he went to the football game or he didn’t, either Tyson paid for it or it didn’t, and that’s either illegal or not.

Maybe that’s a problem with the independent counsel law, which places no strictures on the amount of time and resources an investigation can use. But maybe it’s the price of being thorough on a high-profile case. Cabinet members don’t get indicted every day, and the last thing anybody would want is a cavalier prosecution.

Now that the independent counsel law has stung nearly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, sentiment for reform is growing.  In fact, there’s even a case for abandoning the law. The attorney general can already appoint an outside counsel. But that’s not what will pass.

Laws that would indirectly hobble prosecutors are more likely.  One bad idea is time limits. Criminal investigations, even straightforward ones, take time. If the law placed an arbitrary limit on how long, the risk would be a slapdash inquiry obscuring as much as it revealed.

The importance of an unfettered inquiry is all the more clear when the subject is complex. The Whitewater investigation, for example, involves a complicated series of financial transactions which lack complete documentation and about which witnesses have been less than forthcoming.

What’s true of criminal investigations is true of other fact-finding exercises as well. Their goal should be the full picture. Time limits merely invite sloppiness — and serve as an invitation to withhold information. The ongoing Senate inquiry into Democratic fund-raising may be fatally damaged by its Jan. 1 deadline.

Yes, there is a countervailing danger of investigations dragging on endlessly for political reasons. But it would be far worse to sacrifice the lofty goals of truth and justice for the sake of reform.