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Starr Tries to Force Lewinsky Interview

Monica Lewinsky Monica Lewinsky outside federal courthouse in August. (Reuters file)

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  • By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, January 23, 1999; Page A1

    Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, stepping into the middle of President Clinton's impeachment trial, went to federal court yesterday to try to force former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky to talk with the House Republican "managers" prosecuting the case in the Senate.

    Responding to a request for help from lead prosecutor Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), Starr asked a judge to force Lewinsky to submit to an informal interview this weekend as the Senate prepares to consider whether to call witnesses or end the trial. Through her lawyers, Lewinsky is fighting all attempts to debrief her without a Senate subpoena, arguing that it would be wrong to help either side.

    "We believe it is inappropriate for Ms. Lewinsky to be placed in the position of a partisan -- meeting with one side and not the other -- in this unique proceeding," her attorneys, Jacob A. Stein and Plato Cacheris, wrote in a letter to Starr's office.

    By enlisting Starr's aid, the managers reignited criticism from Senate Democrats, who complained when the House team first contacted Lewinsky's lawyers on their own last week despite a Senate agreement to put off a decision on witnesses until next week. "It is a desperate attempt by some to win a case that is increasingly problematic to the House managers," Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said in an interview last night. Hyde, he added, has "now enlisted Ken Starr as the 14th House manager."

    But the managers said there was nothing wrong with approaching witnesses to get ready for the possibility of testimony. "There is some preparatory work being done just to lay some groundwork in the event we are allowed to call witnesses," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), one of the managers. "We have to be prepared so we do not cause delay in the Senate."

    The prospect of Lewinsky testifying from the well of the Senate about her relationship with the president has struck near terror in the hearts of senators from both sides of the aisle who fear the public spectacle that could ensue. In seeking permission to call her, House prosecutors have pledged to refrain from asking Lewinsky about the sexual details of the affair other than to reaffirm her previous grand jury testimony. They say they want to focus instead on her recollection of events that led to the obstruction-of-justice charge lodged against Clinton.

    The managers first contacted Lewinsky's lawyers last week about setting up a voluntary meeting, only to be rejected. Hyde then sent Starr a letter on Thursday seeking his assistance because Lewinsky has an immunity agreement that requires her cooperation with the independent counsel.

    The July 28 agreement between Lewinsky and Starr guaranteed her protection from prosecution in exchange for the grand jury testimony that led to the independent counsel's impeachment referral to Congress on Sept. 9. But it also requires her to "testify truthfully" in any "congressional proceedings" and to "make herself available for any interviews upon reasonable request."

    After receiving Hyde's letter, Robert J. Bittman, a Starr deputy, called Lewinsky's lawyers on Thursday to direct her to cooperate with the House managers. But Stein and Cacheris replied that they would not allow it and argued that her immunity agreement covered only formal requests from Congress. The interview requirement applies to debriefings by Starr's office, not "acting as an agent for others," the lawyers said in a letter delivered by hand yesterday.

    The letter further noted that the Senate had set its own rules for witness interviews and had not authorized any deposition of their client. "Ms. Lewinsky will, of course, respond to a subpoena to appear and testify before the Senate," her lawyers wrote.

    In his own letter to Lewinsky's lawyers, Bittman rejected their arguments. "The Managers are acting on behalf of the House of Representatives as a whole, not on behalf of a political party," he wrote. "Their task is constitutional in nature." He also offered to have Starr's office conduct the debriefing along with the managers if that would satisfy her concerns.

    It did not, and so Bittman filed a motion yesterday afternoon asking Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson to enforce the immunity agreement. At an emergency 5:30 p.m. hearing, Johnson heard arguments by the two sides and indicated she would rule as early as today.

    In addition to Lewinsky, the managers are likely to ask the Senate to call Oval Office secretary Betty Currie, presidential confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr., White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta and Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal. Under the impeachment trial rules, the Senate starting Monday will consider whether to hear testimony and would have to vote first to conduct depositions and then again if it wants to call witnesses to the floor.

    It remains unclear whether Lewinsky or another Starr witness, Linda R. Tripp, would need another grant of immunity to testify in the Senate. Starr told Lewinsky's lawyers that he could provide her new immunity, but some Democrats warned that it may require a days-long process through the federal courts instead.

    "Their lawyers would verge on malpractice in not getting them a fresh grant of immunity," said Abbe D. Lowell, the chief Democratic investigator during the House impeachment debate. "You would then end up in a position where your testimony could conflict with your earlier testimony with no protection."

    Meanwhile, court papers unsealed yesterday show that Johnson determined last August that White House special counsel Lanny A. Breuer could not refuse to answer Starr's grand jury questions about discussions he had with the president's private attorneys during the course of the investigation.

    But she found that Breuer could claim attorney-client privilege about other conversations, including meetings with Clinton and discussions with Lewinsky's former co-workers if they were designed to render legal advice. Breuer told the court that he met with one such White House aide, Lewinsky friend Ashley Raines, after the scandal broke a year ago to seek information about Lewinsky and advise her about hiring a lawyer.

    Both sides appealed portions of Johnson's ruling, but the records released yesterday do not indicate how it was resolved.

    Staff writers Susan Schmidt and Helen Dewar contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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