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Reno Seeks Pact With Starr on Probe

Starr Independent counsel Kenneth Starr testifying before House Judiciary Committee in December. (Reuters)

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  • U.S. Advised Starr of Probe Last Month (Washington Post, Feb. 11)

  • By Roberto Suro
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, February 20, 1999; Page A11

    Attorney General Janet Reno and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr are embroiled in behind-the-scenes legal jockeying over how allegations of misconduct by Starr's office should be investigated, according to informed officials.

    Reno advised Starr a month ago that the Justice Department intended to investigate whether he abused his authority in any way during his Monica S. Lewinsky inquiry. Since then, both sides have been trying to resolve disagreements over how such an investigation should proceed and who should conduct it, the sources said.

    Initially, the department's ethics unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility, advised Starr that it would handle the investigation. But Starr complained that the job should be done by an outside investigator -- a prominent former prosecutor or judge. Starr argued in a letter that it was important to remove such an investigation from the Clinton administration's Justice Department in order to guarantee an impartial probe, according to sources familiar with the exchanges.

    Anxious to avoid a confrontation, Reno has been attempting to frame a compromise with Starr but has not reached a decision.

    Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told reporters Thursday that the Justice Department "would leave, I think, all of our options open as to who might do such an investigation."

    The department has indicated an interest in investigating whether Starr's assistants improperly coerced Lewinsky during the infamous "sting" at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pentagon City on Jan. 16, 1998, and whether there were contacts between Starr's office and attorneys involved in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton.

    Determining the best way to handle a probe of Starr is fraught not only with political difficulties but also thorny legal questions because "the law doesn't provide a road map," said one Justice Department official.

    The law permits removal of an independent counsel "only by the personal action of the Attorney General and only for good cause" but does not set a process for reaching such a judgment.

    "The statutory scheme clearly anticipates some authority for an attorney general to investigate an independent counsel. Otherwise, how could an attorney general determine whether there was good cause for removal? But it is an implied authority," said Stephen A. Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University.

    "On the other hand, an independent counsel would seem to have the right to express a preference about how such an investigation is conducted," Saltzburg said. "Starr could even refuse to cooperate with a Justice Department investigation if he thinks it is going to interfere with his activities, and all the attorney general could do is remove him for that."

    The independent counsel law, passed in the aftermath of Watergate, establishes a mechanism for investigating top executive branch officials that is free from the conflicts of interest that would result if an attorney general were to investigate colleagues in the same administration.

    Reno repeatedly has stated that she is determined to avoid any action that would even appear to infringe on Starr's independence, and Justice Department officials and other legal experts have assumed that she would seek an outside investigator to handle the allegations arising from the Lewinsky matter.

    She already has approved two similar probes involving Starr. At Starr's suggestion, Reno agreed that a former Justice Department ethics watchdog, Michael A. Shaheen Jr., should investigate whether a prominent witness in Starr's Whitewater probe, David Hale, received payments from political adversaries of Clinton's. Shaheen is to report to a special panel of two retired federal judges.

    On the question of whether Starr or his assistants violated Justice Department guidelines by leaking grand jury material to the news media, Reno has deferred to another outside investigation set up by Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson. Last September, Johnson appointed John W. Kern III, a senior judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals, to conduct the leak inquiry and report his findings to her.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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