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Grand juries to meet in D.C., Ark.

Published Mar. 11, 1994
Updated Oct. 6, 2005

Now that controversy surrounding the Whitewater affair has spread from Arkansas to Washington, the special prosecutor appointed to investigate the case is using grand juries in both places.

Robert Fiske, who will convene a special grand jury in Little Rock to investigate President Clinton's ties to the failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, subpoenaed 10 administration officials to testify before an existing grand jury at the federal courthouse in Washington. Three of them appeared Thursday.

A regular federal grand jury in Little Rock has been investigating Whitewater for several months. Fiske's Whitewater grand jury in Little Rock will convene March 23.

Fiske is using the Washington grand jury to question Clinton administration officials under oath to determine if they tried to interfere with the Resolution Trust Corp.'s investigation of Madison Guaranty. Fiske says this phase of the investigation should last no more than several months, while the entire investigation of Clinton's business dealings with James McDougal, Madison Guaranty's former owner, could take a year and a half.

Fiske apparently chose to use the Washington grand jury because all of the subpoenaed documents and witnesses are in the nation's capital.

It is not uncommon for federal prosecutors in complex criminal investigations to use grand juries in more than one location. Such multiple jurisdiction investigations are necessary because indictments must be brought where some or all of the allegedly illegal activity occurred.

Grand juries, which consist of 23 members, meet in secret to hear evidence of possible criminal wrongdoing. Prosecutors are empowered as officers of the grand jury to issue subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify under oath and turn over documents. A majority of the quorum of 16 members is needed to return an indictment.

Subpoenas can be challenged in court. In federal courts, such challenges are heard in secret to prevent details of an ongoing investigation from being disclosed to the public.

The Fifth Amendment guarantees that "no person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury." It also allows witnesses to refuse to testify against themselves.

Grand jury secrecy is designed to protect the reputations of people under investigation who never end up being charged. It also enables prosecutors to prevent details of sensitive investigations from being learned by the targets of their probes.

Grand jurors and prosecutors are bound by secrecy, but witnesses and their lawyers are free to discuss the details of testimony.