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Clinton Team Accepts Offer to Query Starr



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  • By Juliet Eilperin and Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, November 18, 1998; Page A1

    The White House yesterday accepted the House Judiciary Committee's offer to question independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr when he appears before the committee Thursday, while committee Republicans suggested they may call more witnesses to flesh out Starr's allegations against President Clinton.

    On a day in which partisan wrangling over how to handle the impeachment inquiry of Clinton seemed to intensify, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) denounced the hearing as an unfair and "inexplicable process," and threatened to boycott. But later in the day, committee Democrats assured reporters that they would attend. "A boycott was never a serious option," one member said.

    Several committee Republicans predicted they would call more witnesses besides Starr, in part to determine whether the Clinton administration tried to obstruct the independent counsel's investigation. Some members mentioned the possibility of calling John Huang, the former Democratic National Committee operative who was a key figure in the investigation of alleged fund-raising abuses by the Clinton campaign in 1996. But they said no final decisions have been made and declined to identify other prospective witnesses.

    The skirmishing reflected the high stakes involved as the crucial Thursday hearing approaches. It will mark the first time Starr has appeared in public to discuss the report in which he alleged Clinton perjured himself and committed other impeachable offenses in the Monica Lewinsky matter.

    While Democrats want to focus attention on Starr's methods, committee Republicans are hoping that a strong performance by Starr could energize their lagging drive to obtain articles of impeachment against the president. Thus both sides have been struggling over the parameters of the hearing, in which Starr will be given two hours to make a statement before questioning.

    After several days of vigorous internal debate, the White House accepted the committee's offer to question Starr, but insisted that Clinton's lawyers have more time than the 30 minutes the committee allotted to them, noting that Starr has two hours for an opening statement.

    In a letter to committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff asked for 90 minutes for himself and his colleagues, noting that Starr and committee Republicans would still have more time compared with Democrats.

    "Anything less than 90 minutes would unfairly constrain our ability to explore the basis for Mr. Starr's testimony and for any conclusions he may proffer," Ruff wrote.

    Despite the appeal, Republican committee aides indicated last night that Hyde would not grant Clinton's lawyers additional time to question Starr.

    The White House also expressed dismay that the committee was contemplating calling Huang as a witness, as reported in the New York Times yesterday.

    "If the committee decides that they want to go on a fishing expedition and bring back some of the greatest hits of some of their previous adventures into other issues, then I think that will reinforce the American people's view that this process is not fair, expeditious and limited," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart.

    Hyde spokesman Sam Stratman said the panel was forced to seek witnesses like Huang because "the White House is doing little to assist the committee, and Democrats are hell bent on attacking the credibility of the independent counsel's referral. The committee must be prepared to interview all witnesses that will give us a reliable factual record."

    Informed sources said Starr sent a fresh batch of documents to the committee yesterday, including documents regarding his investigation of former associate attorney general Webster Hubbell. That was in response to a request from Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the committee's ranking minority member, for information concerning Starr's efforts to expand earlier investigations to include Clinton's involvement with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, the central issue in the impeachment inquiry.

    According to sources familiar with the documents, the Hubbell material includes notes of conversations between independent counsel attorneys and Justice Department officials, but not Huang's grand jury testimony in the Hubbell case.

    Several committee members argued that in calling more witnesses, the committee would simply be examining whether Clinton officials used similar tactics over time to try to obstruct the independent counsel's investigation: Starr's original report "referred to a pattern and practice," said committee member Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.).

    Hutchinson said in an interview he has urged Hyde on more than one occasion, including yesterday, to consider bringing Lewinsky, Clinton secretary Betty Currie and Clinton's friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. before the panel.

    Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), a leading Clinton opponent on the committee, also suggested that if the committee could verify allegations Hubbell received money in exchange for keeping silent in other Starr inquiries, "that could put us in the position of looking at a potential bribery count" against the president.

    But these and similar observations left Democrats furious over what they considered eleventh-hour efforts to introduce new material into the impeachment inquiry without giving congressional Democrats or the Administration a fair opportunity to respond.

    "This is really an outrageous procedure that we hotly contest," Gephardt told reporters.

    "If this thing keeps going the way it's been going, Democrats may decide not to come to the hearing."

    But after a late afternoon meeting with Gephardt, committee Democrats told reporters there would be no "walkout."

    Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said that while Democrats disagree with the way Hyde has structured the hearings, "there's a real need to get this over with."

    "If they call Ken Starr alone, that's not a fair proceeding," Frank said. "But it gets us to closure." But "if they start talking about other witnesses, then I don't know what happens."

    Dread of the unknown had prompted a fierce debate in the White House over whether Clinton's lawyers should accept the committee's invitation to question Starr. Some advisers concluded that they had more to lose than gain, arguing that tough questioning would be better left to committee Democrats on the theory that Starr, an experienced appellate litigator and former federal appeals court judge, would not be an easy witness to crack.

    But the appeal of finally turning the tables on Starr after more than four frustrating years of playing defense apparently was too much for the president's lawyers.

    Ruff said he would be joined at the hearing by Clinton's private attorney David E. Kendall and White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig, who is overseeing the impeachment defense.

    But one source familiar with the planning said Craig likely will not participate in the questioning.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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