By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
White House advisers and congressional Democrats said they plan to use the subpoena power granted to the House Judiciary Committee to summon witnesses, possibly including a former Starr law partner, to explore connections with the Jones lawsuit. Such ties, they argue, raise questions about whether the independent counsel should have been allowed to investigate Clinton's actions in the Jones case.
The likely line of inquiry is part of a Democratic strategy to focus attention on Starr's conduct rather than the president's as impeachment proceedings move forward. Clinton's legal team has also asked Attorney General Janet Reno to review Starr's actions in winning permission to investigate the Monica S. Lewinsky matter in January, but the Justice Department so far has not moved beyond an initial review of whether to open a formal inquiry.
While the Clinton camp is developing an aggressive, turn-the-table defense strategy, Republicans are struggling with how to structure the impeachment inquiry. Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) confirmed yesterday that the panel is "streamlining its work to focus on the core charges against the president of lying under oath, obstruction of justice and witness tampering."
Republicans may consolidate the 15 counts outlined by their chief investigator this month into as few as two aggregate charges encompassing most of the actions cited by Starr as potential impeachable offenses, sources said. Any such move would be aimed at finishing the inquiry by the end of the year, although Hyde warned that the self-imposed deadline is contingent on "cooperation from the White House and the Democrats."
"We will look at any substantive impeachable act that comes to our attention from Ken Starr . . . but we are not seeking to broaden the investigation," Hyde added. "My sense is there's a burnout factor on this, and [the public] would like to get it over with. That doesn't mean they don't take it seriously. We take it seriously."
The top committee investigators and staff directors from both parties set a meeting yesterday for next Tuesday with representatives of the president, including White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, to discuss procedures for the probe. But Republicans announced yesterday that they will postpone an Oct. 22 subcommittee hearing demanded by Democrats to examine the standards for impeachment.
The White House offered little public reaction to the possibility of a narrowing of the inquiry, but privately advisers saw the move as a heartening sign and said such omnibus charges would be easier to fight.
A major focus for the Clinton team at the moment, though, is offense rather than defense. While plans are not finalized, some Democrats said they want to subpoena Richard W. Porter, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, from which Starr is now on leave, to force him to explain under oath his contacts with the Jones lawyers. Clinton allies said any Porter involvement could trigger the conflict-of-interest clause in the independent counsel law, which prohibits law partners of independent counsels from representing anyone "involved in any investigation or prosecution under this chapter."
"Certainly, we need to look into that question," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), adding that Porter's testimony "could be relevant."
Porter declined to comment last night. While he has had conversations with the Jones lawyers and is friends with other lawyers who had helped her case, Porter has said that he did no legal work for Jones.
Yesterday, the Clinton camp also seized on a National Public Radio report that Starr himself had consulted with Gilbert K. Davis, then a Jones lawyer, four to six times before he was appointed independent counsel in 1994. Such consultations might have meant that it was a conflict for Starr to seek authority from Reno and a three-judge panel in January to investigate Clinton's involvement in the Jones case, critics said.
"Any and all consultations with Paula Jones's counsel absolutely should have been disclosed both to the attorney general and the special division court," said Clinton's private attorney, David E. Kendall. "Any prior advice to the Paula Jones lawyers would be a critical factor in January 1998 in ascertaining whether . . . Starr was adequately independent to conduct an investigation in the Paula Jones case."
A high-ranking Justice Department official said last night that the agency will review Starr's early contacts with Davis. "It depends on what the actual facts are," the official said.
But Starr's contacts with Davis were known long before the NPR report. News organizations, including The Washington Post, reported those contacts in January. Davis said then and again yesterday that the discussions focused entirely on the question of whether Clinton enjoyed immunity from civil suit because he is president, an issue on which Starr had publicly expressed his thoughts.
"This office did not mislead the Department of Justice regarding relevant facts relating to its jurisdiction or any expansion thereof," Starr said last night.
The Justice Department already has been poring through Starr's submissions to Congress to determine whether there is any evidence to support Kendall's allegation that Starr acted improperly in obtaining authority to investigate the Lewinsky matter. The law allows an attorney general to fire an independent counsel for cause but does not provide for lesser sanctions. As a result, Reno can open a full-scale investigation only if there is evidence of misconduct so serious that it would warrant Starr's dismissal if true.
Staff writers Susan Schmidt, Roberto Suro and George Lardner Jr. contributed to this report.
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