By Roberto Suro
After a day of hurried meetings, Attorney General Janet Reno on Jan. 16 acceded to Starr's request to investigate allegations that former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky was urged to perjure herself about whether she had sexual relations with the president. The three-judge panel that oversees independent counsels also approved the move.
In pressing to expand the scope of his investigation, Starr argued that he had plans to gather evidence against Jordan that would be scuttled by even a few hours' delay because Newsweek was pursuing a story about Lewinsky based on secret tape recordings, the officials said. But after Starr got the go-ahead on Jan. 16, Lewinsky balked at becoming a prosecution informant. Since then, Starr has aggressively sought witnesses and evidence regarding Clinton's alleged relationship with Lewinsky even as he continues to probe Jordan's role.
If any cases resulting from Lewinsky's claims are brought to trial, the means by which Starr expanded his jurisdiction could be challenged by the defendants, according to Justice Department officials and legal experts.
In the first detailed account of the process that opened the president's relationship with Lewinsky to an independent counsel investigation, the officials said that Starr initially presented little evidence directly relating to Clinton other than Lewinsky's assertion that the president had urged her to see Jordan after she received a subpoena in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.
Although there was little direct reference to Clinton by Starr, it was clear to all involved that the prosecutor was seeking a mandate that would allow him to investigate whether Clinton played a larger role in the alleged effort to prevent Lewinsky from testify truthfully about what she claims was a sexual relationship with the president, the officials said.
Starr ultimately got most of what he wanted by going to Reno with a combination of finely tuned legal arguments, a secret tape recording of Lewinsky's explosive accusations and a 24-hour deadline backed by the implicit threat that any delay by Reno would blow the entire investigation, the officials said.
Justice Department officials hurriedly debated other options, including the possibility of conducting a preliminary investigation to check out Lewinsky and her allegations before deciding whether an independent counsel probe was justified. But Starr insisted that the impending publication of the Newsweek story would ruin any chance of turning her into a government witness who could record incriminating conversations. And the Justice officials were concerned that the department's reputation could suffer if they appeared to impede such a sensitive investigation.
The first news of the Lewinsky case reached the Justice Department the night of Jan. 14, when one of Starr's top assistants paged Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who was watching the Washington Wizards play at the MCI Center. The message was simple: An urgent request for a new investigative mandate would be landing at the attorney general's office the next morning.
On Jan. 15, officials from Starr's office arrived at the Justice Department with a request to investigate allegations that Jordan had instructed Lewinsky to perjure herself in the Jones case in order to protect the president, officials said.
Starr argued that under independent counsel procedures, this could be considered a "related matter" to his ongoing investigation of whether Jordan and other Clinton friends had lined up lucrative consulting fees for Webster L. Hubbell, the former associate attorney general and Clinton's close friend from Arkansas, as part of a wider effort to win Hubbell's silence on Whitewater and other Clinton business dealings.
The key evidence presented to support this argument by Starr was a secret tape recording made two days earlier. Starr had ordered FBI agents to place hidden recording devices on Linda R. Tripp, a friend of Lewinsky's who had come to Starr to volunteer information about the former intern's dealings with Clinton and Jordan.
However, Reno gave Starr the approval to investigate Lewinsky's claims under a different provision of the Independent Counsel Act. Rather than consider it a related matter to the Whitewater investigation, the attorney general allowed Starr an expanded authority to investigate "Lewinsky and others" separately.
Justice Department officials argued that if Jordan's dealings with Lewinsky were considered a related matter to Starr's core investigation of Whitewater, then he could too easily insist on adding new allegations involving other individuals to his probe in the future. The mandate as it was granted limits him to questions arising only from Lewinsky's claims.
Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.
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