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U.S. Advised Starr of Probe Last Month

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  • By Roberto Suro
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, February 11, 1999; Page A13

    Just as President Clinton's impeachment trial began in the Senate, Attorney General Janet Reno last month took the first steps toward a full-scale investigation of alleged misconduct that could lead to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's removal from office, according to official sources.

    In a mid-January letter, a top Justice Department official informed Starr of the department's intention to investigate him on several points arising from his handling of the Monica S. Lewinsky matter, including alleged misconduct in immunity talks with Lewinsky and potentially unethical contacts with the lawyers behind Paula Jones's sexual harassment suit against Clinton.

    Reno's move marked a sharp escalation of her scrutiny of Starr after months of seemingly inconclusive reviews of allegations, some of which were made nearly a year ago. Congressional Democrats and the White House repeatedly have questioned Starr's conduct and have demanded an ethics investigation.

    Both the timing and the content of the letter from the Justice Department career official had an explosive effect in Starr's office, where some of his staff concluded that Reno was out to get the prosecutor who had prompted the president's impeachment, sources said. Even though the investigation had not been formally opened, Reno had threatened Starr with the professional equivalent of the death penalty.

    By law, the only disciplinary measure an attorney general can take against an independent counsel is removal from office, and Reno's publicly stated policy is that no investigation of an independent counsel will be opened unless the charges are so weighty that if proven true, removal would be the proper punishment.

    No sudden discoveries appear to have prompted Reno's decision, and some of the controversies cited in the letter to Starr were nearly a year old, such as the claim that Starr's assistants acted improperly when they first confronted Lewinsky on Jan. 16, 1998. Questions about informal contacts between Starr's office and attorneys who helped bring the Jones lawsuit have circulated since November.

    Starr repeatedly has denied any wrongdoing and was questioned at length about most of the issues during his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee in November.

    Each time Clinton's supporters raised one of these issues in the past year, Reno said the allegations would be "reviewed" by the Office of Professional Responsibility, the Justice Department's ethical watchdog for federal prosecutors. Such a review typically does not involve subpoenaed witnesses or other assertive investigative techniques and usually goes no further than an examination of information on the public record and informal inquiries. Reno's aides took pains to distinguish between a review and an investigation that would begin only if credible evidence pointed to specific misconduct.

    Reno began moving across the threshold from a review to a full-blown investigation with halting steps. The letter to Starr last month only advised him of an intent to investigate him and allowed him to respond to the charges before the attorney general's final decision to go forward.

    However, even if Reno were to step back now, her actions have already offered some comfort to Clinton's defenders, who have consistently attacked the validity of Starr's investigation and the articles of impeachment it produced. "We've heard a lot about the rule of law recently," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said yesterday. "How does that apply to Ken Starr?"

    Aside from technical issues of whether Starr followed proper procedures in his inquiry, the Justice Department probe would raise the more politically potent question of whether Clinton's political enemies conspired to jump-start Starr's investigation of the Lewinsky matter. Specifically, the department advised Starr that it intends to look into conversations that took place between Paul Rosenzweig, a member of Starr's staff, and Jerome Marcus, a Philadelphia attorney who assisted the Jones legal team. Those contacts alerted Starr's office to Linda R. Tripp's claims that an effort was underway to illegally conceal the president's sexual relationship with Lewinsky.

    Republicans quickly attacked Reno's scrutiny of Starr. "This Justice Department, in the eyes of many, is the most partisan Justice Department in this century," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).

    Meanwhile, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee announced yesterday that it will hold hearings on the independent counsel law. Sen. Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), the committee's Republican chairman, and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), its ranking Democrat, said in a joint statement that they may call Starr, Reno and other experts to testify at hearings set to begin Feb. 24.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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