By David Segal
This week, the controversial legal gadfly who has peppered the Clinton administration with no fewer than 18 lawsuits actually found independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr following his lead. In recent days Starr has issued subpoenas for the sworn depositions of several Pentagon officials taken earlier this month by Klayman.
"Obviously, what you're seeing is the result of hard work and a fierce determination to get to the truth," said Klayman.
Armed with broad-ranging subpoena power by a federal judge and backed by money from an anti-Clinton foundation, Klayman himself has become a kind of permanent, privately funded independent counsel, pioneering -- Democrats would say abusing -- the use of civil lawsuits as a political weapon against the administration.
Described by a former colleague as the sort of guy who'd "sue you for criticizing his tie," he's now working a pair of cases against the Justice Department, three against the Commerce Department and one against the White House for obtaining the FBI files of Republicans.
He's tried to depose subjects ranging from first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to low-level staffers who've pleaded no knowledge of the events in question. Ignoring the standard cease-fire rules for journalists, he's begun to subpoena reporters and their notes -- though on one such request, a judge this week said Klayman had gone too far.
"Unfortunately in this world, people don't take you seriously unless you threaten litigation," he said. That goes for his mother too, whom Klayman is now suing, through a collection agency, to recover money he spent caring for his grandmother. ("I wish we could have settled it in the family, but we couldn't," he said in an interview. "So what do you do?")
It was one of his recent actions that got Starr's attention. When allegations surfaced that Pentagon officials had leaked damaging information about Starr's key witness in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation -- onetime Lewinsky friend Linda R. Tripp -- Klayman was first out of the gate with subpoenas.
He got Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon to reveal under oath that he authorized the release of a piece of information from Tripp's personnel file. Starr then asked for the depositions of Bacon and another Pentagon official and called a third before a grand jury in Alexandria.
Klayman, a once-obscure trade lawyer who founded his conservative "watchdog" group Judicial Watch in 1994, has alleged an array of government cover-ups in everything from Commerce Department trade missions to the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster.
On some matters, Klayman gets legal standing by representing plaintiffs seeking damages, as with the FBI files suit in which he's working on behalf of Republicans whose files were obtained by the White House. In other suits, Judicial Watch itself is the plaintiff and files suit, as any citizen can, under the Freedom of Information Act -- such as one action seeking information on how participants are selected for Commerce trade missions. So far, none of the cases have been resolved.
Like Starr, White House officials denounce him as a run-amok grandstander abusing the judicial system for partisan ends.
But unlike Starr, Klayman is a regular on the television circuit, popping up on media outlets ranging from "Rivera Live" to Pat Robertson's "700 Club" -- sometimes with videotaped snippets of his latest deposition in hand.
"He may be a legal wild man intent on wallpapering the nation with subpoenas, but I must say he sounds shockingly reasonable on the air," said Geraldo Rivera.
It's a seamless and original way to perpetuate his cause: The lawsuits generate buzz, which gets him on television, which spurs contributions, which funds more lawsuits, which gets him on television, and so on.
The specifics of where Judicial Watch gets money for its advertisements, direct mail, rent and staff of 10 is a topic Klayman testily avoids. He declines to discuss which, if any, foundations have given the group money. Nor will he discuss how many donors send checks in response to Judicial Watch's voluminous direct-mail pitches and ads.
"I just don't get into that because of the current political climate," he said.
In 1997, Judicial Watch won a grant of undetermined size from a Richard Mellon Scaife foundation, said Edwin J. Feulner Jr., a Scaife board member and president of the Heritage Foundation. Scaife, a Pittsburgh billionaire, is a virulent Clinton critic.
Judicial Watch's direct-mail campaigns are handled by conservative activist Richard Viguerie. Having sent several million solicitation letters in the past year, Judicial Watch has received contributions from roughly 40,000 different people, source familiar with the list said.
The direct mail and ads tend to paint Klayman as the only man honest enough to skewer a morally bankrupt administration well-versed in skulduggery. One suggested that Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, who was killed in a plane crash, might have been shot in the head. The shooting is being covered up by the Clinton-Gore team, the ad said, because Brown might have been "ready to spill the beans."
Klayman said he operates on a tiny budget because many of his attorneys are volunteers. He calls himself a "large benefactor," pumping in money he earns from his private practice. In 1996, the group took in $68,000 in outside contributions and he donated more than $100,000 of his own money, according to tax documents filed with the IRS.
Klayman said he is merely filling a void left by a Justice Department too compromised to properly do its job. And he described himself as a bipartisan antagonist who is equally critical of Republicans.
"I don't get invited to parties, and I'm not in the social loop in terms of the party crowd," he said. "We were among the first to advise Newt Gingrich to step down. That didn't win friends and influence people."
Raised in Pennsylvania, Klayman said he is a Jack Kemp-style Republican and lives in Washington with a wife and 4-month-old daughter. He worked for two years in the Justice Department and toiled in law firms in the District and Florida, handling international trade issues for both foreign and American companies.
To trade attorneys familiar with his years in private practice, Klayman's rise to prominence has come as a shock. They describe him as a caricature of a combative and suspicious lawyer.
"There's a sort of 'fan club' of lawyers in Washington that follow his latest moves, mostly because we can't believe what he gets away with," said Louis Mastriani, a Washington lawyer who's worked both with and against Klayman, and one of few willing to discuss him on the record. "He plays fast and loose and he has no shame."
Klayman's behavior has clearly enraged some judges. During a 1992 patent and trademark case, a California federal judge cited a "pattern of misconduct" when ordering Klayman & Associates to pay more than $20,000 of the plaintiff's fees and expenses for "unreasonably and vexatiously multiplying the proceedings." The judge then took the unusual step of permanently banning Klayman from again entering his courtroom.
Klayman, who is Jewish, later accused the judge of anti-Semitism. "He kept referring to me as Mr. Schmuckler," Klayman said, adding that a few sanctions in a 21-year career are "no big deal."
Getting noticed wasn't always easy for Klayman. Until recently, he kept the names of 600 journalists programmed into Judicial Watch's fax machine and would regularly blast-fax word that he was "available for comment" about the day's news. His group landed on the news media map in 1996, after Klayman's subpoena of John Huang drew the reclusive Democratic fund-raiser back into the center of the campaign finance scandal. The group made more headlines in its suit against the Commerce Department, which revived allegations that Brown sold seats on trade missions to wealthy Democratic donors.
Some legal observers fret that Klayman is cleverly pioneering a way to multiply the number of lawsuits targeting politicians and their friends. Witnesses complain that they have spent thousands of dollars in attorneys fees only to be subjected to hours of off-the-topic questions, part of a sprawling fishing expedition for incriminating facts.
Clinton adviser James Carville, who was deposed by Klayman in the FBI files case, was asked about his television viewing habits. Paul Begala was asked for the name of his priest. George Stephanopoulos was questioned about his history of traffic tickets and White House employee Eleanor Stacy Parker was asked about the murders at a Starbucks store in Georgetown.
And opposing lawyers in the FBI file case have complained that their clients have been dragooned into appearing before Klayman's whirring video camera for the flimsiest of reasons. Begala, for instance, was subpoenaed after joking in a speech before a business group that "There are good Republicans out there, which is not something I would have known just from reading their FBI files. You know, I mean, 'I was joking, your honor.' "
"There's a significant danger that what Klayman's being allowed to do will interfere with the political and free-speech rights of third parties who aren't directly involved in these suits," said Paul Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown Law School. "Some of Judicial Watch's actions are incredibly farfetched."
"He's using the judicial system to harass me for my political views," said Carville.
During his depositions, which are typically six hours long, Klayman comes off as both a stern, conspiracy-minded inquisitor and an inveterate gossip. He's especially curious about what is being said about him.
"How many times do you talk to Mr. Begala, weekly or daily?" Klayman asked Stephanopoulos, later wondering, "When did you talk to him about me?"
Klayman said that he sticks to the point in his inquiries, and defends his questions as earnest efforts to pry information from a group of witnesses who know how to shade the truth. Even his questions about Stephanopoulos's traffic tickets, he said, are relevant.
"If you're constantly violating traffic rules and regulations you might be violating other rules and regs," he said. "It shows a lack of respect for the law."
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ordered Stephanopoulos to pay some of Judicial Watch's legal fees for failing to adequately search for documents Klayman requested.
Stephanopoulos and others have found that wriggling out of Judicial Watch subpoenas can be tricky. That's because Klayman has been granted broad legal latitude for his investigations by Lamberth, who was assigned, through the luck of the legal draw, to oversee Judicial Watch's FBI files and Commerce cases.
In civil lawsuits, judges have wide discretion to determine which cases are frivolous, and, when a case proceeds, which people can be subpoenaed. Witnesses can try to save themselves the expense, time and aggravation of being deposed by filing motions arguing they have no knowledge of the case. But in Judicial Watch's FBI files suit, some lawyers consider such motions a waste of time.
"We could have moved to quash," said Stanley Brand, Stephanopoulos's lawyer, "but I assessed that as a losing proposition given the leeway Klayman has been given."
Not that Lamberth has given Klayman everything he's requested. The judge blocked Judicial Watch's efforts to depose White House aide Rahm Emanuel, White House press secretary Michael McCurry and others, arguing that Klayman had not proven their relevance to the FBI files suit. And in January, the judge was incensed by a Judicial Watch fund-raising mailer pleading for $100,000 in donations to cover the expense of taking Hillary Clinton's deposition, an event described in the pitch as "imminent and inevitable."
"You're not going to start with her, if you're ever going to get her," fumed Lamberth at a court hearing. "And the notion that I have authorized that she be deposed is poppycock."
Klayman, meanwhile, is promising more lawsuits and more subpoenas. He's still hoping to force Hillary Clinton to give a deposition. Accusations that he's publicity-mad won't deter him, nor will the White House's well-orchestrated "smear campaign" against him, he said.
"I really love what I'm doing now," Klayman explained. "This is the future of Larry Klayman. I've found my calling."
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