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Starr Faces Misconduct Allegations

Ken Starr Independent counsel Kenneth Starr. (Reuters)

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  • By Roberto Suro
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, February 9, 1999; Page A4

    The Justice Department has asked independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to respond to allegations that his prosecutors violated department procedures when they first confronted Monica S. Lewinsky last year, according to sources familiar with the inquiry.

    Following standard procedures, the department's Office of Professional Responsibility recently wrote Starr asking him to look into several claims of misconduct arising from the manner in which his assistants handled Lewinsky. Starr was invited to provide his own findings, the sources said.

    The request to Starr is a step toward a formal investigation of his office's conduct, but similar inquiries involving other independent counsels and federal prosecutors have been resolved without the Justice Department opening an official probe.

    The department's professional responsibility watchdogs have had several matters related to Lewinsky "under review" for nearly a year with no indication that a full investigation of Starr's conduct is under imminent consideration. Starr has denied any misconduct.

    The Justice Department is focused on the way Starr's prosecutors handled discussions of a potential immunity deal with Lewinsky on Jan. 16, 1998, when they confronted her with their knowledge of her relationship with President Clinton. That episode, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pentagon City, has been the subject of controversy and court action because Lewinsky did not have an attorney present during her conversations with the prosecutors.

    In a decision issued last April but kept sealed until December, Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson ruled that the prosecutors did not improperly prevent Lewinsky from calling her lawyer and broke no rules by questioning her with no lawyer present.

    However, Johnson expressed "concern" that the Starr prosecutors "may have acted improperly" by conducting negotiations over a possible immunity deal without her attorney present. This relates to a fine point of Justice Department policy, which allows prosecutors to take information, even potentially incriminating information, from a willing witness but requires an attorney to be present when discussing an immunity deal in which a witness agrees to provide certain information for a promise that they will not be prosecuted for certain crimes.

    But Johnson declined to take any action on the issue when she could have sanctioned Starr or prompted an investigation of the matter. The White House alleged that Johnson's decision showed that Justice Department "practices and standards were not followed."

    That claim, which was echoed by congressional Democrats in written complaints to the Justice Department, is a key issue in the internal review of Starr's conduct, sources said.

    The only disciplinary measure an attorney general can take against an independent counsel is removal for gross misconduct. Justice Department policy dictates it will not open a formal investigation unless the allegations are so serious they would merit removal if true. Starr's supporters have argued that if Johnson felt the complaints merited no more than an expression of concern it is unlikely the Justice Department could justify his removal.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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