By Marc Fisher
In the eyes of many prosecutors, they are an all-star team.
The 20 men and women who make up independent counsel Kenneth Starr's legal team have been recruited from the Justice Department, from fancy law firms and from U.S. attorneys' and local prosecutors' offices around the country. They include both movement conservatives who share Starr's pious ideology and some of the hottest public corruption hunters in the business. Collectively, Starr's staff has bagged dozens of pocket-stuffing mayors, ethically challenged congressmen, bad cops and crooked bureaucrats.
Before Whitewater, Starr himself had never put anyone in jail, but he has surrounded himself with lawyers who have -- attorneys accustomed to 100-hour weeks, intense political pressure and, as one of them says, "the power you have over people's lives."
There's Bruce Udolf, a recent arrival from the federal prosecutor's office in Miami, where he nailed mayors, judges, lawyers and cops in bribery, extortion and drug rip-off cases. Prosecutors speak of Udolf with awe, but he protests that in the business of jailing public officials, "there is no glory. It is a distasteful, oftentimes depressing job that someone has to do."
There's Jackie M. Bennett Jr., a prosecutor so relentless on the attack that even one of his colleagues is moved to call him "unusually aggressive." Before he joined Starr, Bennett won a conviction of former U.S. representative Albert Bustamante on bribery charges.
Bennett's opening line to the jury was, "You're about to learn the story about Albert Bustamante, who was on the take." Boom. Later, the prosecutor said Bustamante and his wife decided when he first won election to Congress that they were going to get rich "by hook or crook. And they chose by crook." Bam.
An appeals court fretted that Bennett's questions in pursuit of Bustamante were sometimes improper, but the conviction stood.
There's Michael Emmick, the prosecutor who took Monica Lewinsky on her window-shopping tour of Pentagon City the day the ex-intern was lured to a meeting with Starr's investigators. It was Emmick who kept Lewinsky from bolting as they waited nine hours for her mother to arrive from New York. And it was Emmick who kept up a steady patter, dangling an offer of immunity if Lewinsky would just tell her story -- even if she didn't have a lawyer yet.
The ploy didn't work, but prosecutors will tell you it was an audacious attempt -- and several of Emmick's former colleagues joked that Emmick, who has a coast-to-coast reputation as a lady's man, might just hit it off with the single Lewinsky.
Udolf, Bennett and Emmick are rough-and-tumble prosecutors, the kind whose opening and closing arguments sound more like tabloid newswriting than legal suasion. That -- along with those 100-hour weeks -- is what makes them so successful, other prosecutors say.
But those who've found themselves among the hunted in the sprawling probe that started out as Whitewater and now threatens Bill Clinton's second term do not share such an admiring view of Starr's minions. They -- along with an increasing number of legal scholars -- contend that Starr's lawyers have pushed their probe so hard that it is testing the boundaries of prudence. They ask: Is it really necessary or appropriate to leave Susan McDougal in jail for 16 months on contempt charges because she refuses to talk about her friend Bill Clinton? Was Starr really prepared to eavesdrop on the president to get evidence of a coverup in the Lewinsky case? Is Starr, who works hard to polish his image as a moral, loving Christian, intent on finding any dirt he can on Clinton, even if it means going where no prosecutor has gone before?
"Whether or not it's a right-wing gang bang, these guys play rough," says Stephen Smith, a University of Arkansas professor who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor conspiracy charge stemming from a real estate deal he made with former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker. "They kept trying to get me to say things that weren't true. They told me to sign a document they had written that was simply not true. They even said they were going to subpoena my mother, who was 70 years old and knew nothing. I don't know if that's standard procedure for federal attorneys, but I know what they're doing to Monica."
Inside Starr's office and out, among prosecutors and defense lawyers alike, first lady Hillary Clinton's notion of a "right-wing conspiracy" at the root of Starr's investigation strikes lawyers as laughable. Because with rare exceptions, criminal lawyers say, what drives prosecutors is not ideology but the hunt.
Stephen Smith isn't the only person who has been on the wrong end of Starr's lawyers and found them to be overeager sharks who stretch prosecutor's tools to the limit in a relentless drive to shake down witnesses and gin up evidence. But others who've been questioned by the Whitewater investigators say they are like any other federal prosecutors, only better.
A look at voters' rolls and interviews with members of Starr's staff indicate that many, if not most, of the lawyers on this investigation are registered Democrats. And a longtime Starr staffer says political pedigree does not come up in job interviews there.
"There may be a little bit of self-selection, in that people who are die-hard Clinton fans won't want to do this work," the staffer says. "But we're very wary of people who are diehard enemies of the president. We have talked to people in interviews who seem too zealous and we don't want them."
Virtually all of Starr's hires are friends of people already in the office, or at least friends of friends, the staffer says. In the early days of the Starr team, which was formed in 1994, a number of the lawyers shared Starr's political background, including membership in the Federalist Society, a libertarian group that serves as a law school breeding ground for conservative-minded government lawyers and judges. But in an office with very high turnover -- many lawyers are on temporary loan from their previous posts -- most recent hires have been career prosecutors who do not necessarily share the boss's politics.
They join the office for reasons other than politics. Top prosecutors are often attracted to independent counsel investigations because the stakes are high -- going after members of Congress, even the president -- the resources are unlimited and the whole psychology of the hunt is more intense than any local prosecutor ever experiences. The money's not bad either -- salaries in Starr's office range from $80,000 to $115,000, loose change to private-sector lawyers but a considerable pay hike for some local prosecutors.
"This is going from Double-A to the big leagues," says Stanley Brand, a Washington defense lawyer who found himself subpoenaed by Starr's office when he was representing a client involved in the probe. "The history of the independent counsel is you don't have to report to anybody."
"The people around Starr are typical federal prosecutors, but they're in a peculiar situation," says Mark Rasch, a former Justice Department lawyer now doing criminal defense. "They have one target, unlimited funds and their job is to find any criminality they can. It's like an organized crime case: You don't say, 'Here's a crime, did Sammy the Bull do it?' You say, 'Sammy the Bull is an organized crime figure. Let's see what we can get on him.' "
The Man in Charge
Starr, now into his fourth year heading the probe, has conservative credentials that are top-drawer -- though his friends and even some legal opponents say he is too flexible to be an ideologue. He once considered running against Oliver North for the GOP nomination in a Virginia U.S. Senate race. And some of Starr's positions as a federal judge won cheers even from civil libertarians, such as when he dissented from a decision allowing the military to forbid a Jewish officer to wear a yarmulke, and when he wrote a strong free-press opinion in a libel case involving The Washington Post.
Supreme Court law clerk, top aide to Ronald Reagan's first attorney general, judge on the U.S. Appeals Court, solicitor general for the Bush Justice Department and now a $1 million-a-year partner at Kirkland & Ellis -- Starr, 51, seems the classic Washington achiever. But if he had set out to convince the nation that he was on a right-wing crusade against the president, he could hardly have outdone his own series of missteps and embarrassing revelations.
First, it emerged that Sen. Jesse Helms and other Clinton-bashing conservatives had an early and, some say, influential meeting with one of the federal judges who selected Starr to be independent counsel. Later, it was revealed that, before taking on the Whitewater job, Starr had agreed to write a brief on behalf of Paula Jones and consulted with her lawyers in her sexual harassment case against the president.
When Starr announced last year that he was quitting the investigation to become dean of a new public policy school at Pepperdine University, the nation learned that 40 percent of the start-up money came from Richard Mellon Scaife, the right-wing millionaire who has subsidized much of the "Was Vince Foster murdered?" conspiracy subculture. In the ensuing uproar, Starr quickly postponed his move to Pepperdine; the job will be kept open for him.
Inside the White House, people argue that the appearance of animus has been bolstered by Starr's public conduct in the investigation. Virtually all prosecutors' offices leak -- prosecutors and the press have a quietly symbiotic relationship. Reporters covering the Starr probe say the office is a typically difficult but sometimes forthcoming source. "It's like chipping rocks," says one reporter who covers the office.
Starr seems to tolerate the role of celebrity lawyer, regularly stepping up to the cluster of microphones propped outside his office and home to deliver brief, unsubstantive comments; backgrounding a New York Times Magazine reporter; occasionally sitting for interviews; responding instantly and sharply to Hillary Clinton's criticism; even cooperating with yesterday's front-page Washington Times paean to his religious devotion, a story that bore the headline "Deeply Christian Starr starts day jogging, singing hymns."
Clinton administration officials contend Starr's behavior violates federal strictures against public disclosure of matters under investigation. For an independent counsel to speak to a reporter, even "on background," is illegal, contends a White House official speaking on background.
Starr says he is careful not to talk about the progress of the probe, but feels an obligation to keep the public informed about the basic purpose and parameters of his office's work.
Despite his thin-skinned response to public criticism, Starr is by nature so cautious and deliberate that, if anything, his investigation has been too gingerly rather than too searing, his defenders say.
"The framers were realists about human nature," Starr said in a 1996 speech that his allies cite as an example of his fundamental flexibility. "Men are not angels. . . . But -- and this is important -- the framers believed that people are not invariably scoundrels, either."
Associates say Starr -- who works such long hours that staffers have received messages from him at 5:15 a.m. -- is genuinely conflicted about his role. They say he does not have a prosecutor's reflexes, the automatic eagerness to pounce on a juicy case. Instead, decisions at Starr's office are made in an endless series of '60s-style, pseudo-democratic meetings in which every lawyer has a voice and every opinion is weighed with what one cynic in the office calls "all deliberate speed."
Starr recognizes his prosecutorial naivete, his staffers say, and so he set out to hire people who would compensate for his shortcomings. "The vision in a nutshell is to create a microcosm of the Justice Department and a microcosm of a U.S. attorney's office," Starr has said. "We have highly capable, experienced, extremely knowledgeable prosecutors who are quite formidable in court."
Prosecuting is a tough game. At first glance, you have all sorts of fun tools -- subpoenas, grand juries, the threat of indictment, the prospect of public exposure. But in the end, a witness either coughs up the information or he doesn't. The witnesses have the power. And while the occasional Susan McDougal gets thrown in the slammer to think about her choice, most witnesses pay no price for silence beyond a few hours of browbeating.
That's why even the dreaded Starr -- the mighty subject of Internet sites and target of an all-out "war" declared by longtime Clinton loyalist James Carville -- has occasionally made meek pleas for Americans who have dirt on the president to help him. "My message to all persons who have relevant information is, come forward," Starr told reporters a year ago. "It's in the interests of the country."
Starr's three top deputies -- Bennett, Hickman Ewing Jr. and Bob Bittman -- cover the full range of prosecutorial styles. Bittman, 35, has been overseeing much of the Lewinsky investigation. Before that, he had been running staff meetings and handling many of the office's administrative matters. A veteran of the state attorney's office in Annapolis, where he prosecuted everything from murders to corruption cases, he's known as a fiercely well-organized lawyer.
Ewing, 55, is a more colorful figure, a former U.S. attorney in Memphis who has been working the Little Rock end of the Starr probe. The son of a prominent Memphis high school coach and county clerk, Ewing watched in pain from his Navy tour in Vietnam as his father -- an alcoholic -- was tried and convicted on embezzlement charges.
After law school, Ewing joined the local prosecutor's office because he had nothing better to do, he told the Wall Street Journal. Ewing -- a fundamentalist Christian who doesn't drink -- went after moonshiners, which led him to corruption cases against sheriffs and even higher officeholders. The notches on his belt include a governor, 10 sheriffs and a slew of lesser public officials.
His courtroom manner is "Southern good old boy, loquacious," a colleague in Starr's office says, but his targets describe him as a zealot with a syrupy manner. Clinton administration officials contend he is driven by what one former official calls "highly political motivations."
Whatever drives him, there is a clear consensus that Ewing takes the task of bringing corrupt officials to justice extremely seriously. In 1980, he wrote a law review article titled "Combating Official Corruption by All Available Means." It opened with lines from the Book of Samuel: "And his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment."
Many Arkansas defense attorneys argue that the independent counsel has tried to turn their state into a Starr Chamber, threatening witnesses, berating lawyers and behaving like an army of occupation.
That criticism is usually tied to the name of Bennett, a former Justice Department public integrity prosecutor who, one colleague allows, "is pretty hard on witnesses." Bennett worked in Indiana before joining the Justice Department, where he won the agency's highest award for trial work.
"Everybody has the same complaint about him," says Max Brantley, editor of the Little Rock weekly, the Arkansas Times. "He screams and berates witnesses. He's a schoolyard bully. Just about any defense attorney in Little Rock came away from Bennett feeling they'd been abused or worse. Bennett and his people sent FBI agents to a high school to get a yearbook picture of somebody. They brought in Jim Guy Tucker's stepson to rake him over the coals about what he'd heard at the dinner table."
"Jackie sees his job as making people squirm, to make them realize they have to tell what they know," a colleague says about Bennett.
Another lawyer in Starr's office says Bennett and the other lawyers profiled in this story were "too busy" with the current investigation to comment.
Investigation insiders, as well as those who have worked against Starr's lawyers, say the office is well on the way toward overcoming a cultural divide that existed in the early years between Washington-groomed former Supreme Court clerks and out-of-town recruits with a more street-savvy manner.
Emmick and Udolf symbolize the arrival of a group of energetic and aggressive additions. Emmick, 45, ran the public corruption and government fraud section of the Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office, overseeing a three-year investigation of L.A. County narcotics officers suspected of skimming drug money.
"Mike is no right-wing conspiracist," says Laurie Levenson, dean of the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former colleague of Emmick's at the U.S. attorney's office. "He's not the rabid type. He is a guy who was looking for a change. This is not someone who was rising quickly in the office."
"The last case I had against Mike about nine months ago, we had a client accused of tax fraud," says Los Angeles defense lawyer Brian Hennigan. "His defense was he was a Vietnam vet with serious personal problems. When I explained that to Mike, Mike interviewed him for two or three hours and Mike was excellent and evenhanded. He's open to using prosecutorial discretion in a fair way."
Udolf, 45, left Miami last year after a seven-year run in which he prosecuted or supervised a legendary series of cases, convicting three judges, five lawyers, two mayors and a slew of cops. In an extraordinary five-hour interview last fall with the Miami weekly New Times, Udolf spelled out his methods and philosophy -- a way of approaching corruption cases that Starr's office appears to share.
Investigations often begin with random tips from citizens or with information developed by newspaper reporters, he says. Eventually "you have an indictment against someone . . . and they end up cooperating," Udolf explains. "That leads to new evidence, new investigations of other people. And that in turn begets other investigations. So, depending on how successful they are, you can either have a snowballing of corruption cases or you can have a dry spell."
Udolf, who was elected district attorney in an Atlanta suburb at age 30, warns that "a lot of the matters we end up investigating turn out to be bogus. . . . A very small proportion of the matters that we investigate -- I'd say under 20 percent -- actually result in an indictment."
Like any prosecutor, Udolf scoffs at the notion that his work is all about notches on the belt. Demonizing the target, he says, "clouds your judgment." At the same time, it is hard to find prosecutors who do not keep somewhere in their brains a running box score of their wins and losses.
"The government wins when there's justice," Udolf says. "In our society, we're so used to judging things by wins, losses and draws. Justice is a much more amorphous concept."
Staff writers Megan Rosenfeld and Ruth Marcus contributed to this report.
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