By Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr is investigating whether President Clinton's allies are trying to hinder his probe of the Monica S. Lewinsky matter by spreading negative information about prosecutors, even as a private investigator acknowledged last night that he has been hired by Clinton's defense team.
Starr has subpoenaed White House adviser Sidney Blumenthal to appear today before a grand jury investigating Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky and turn over any documents he has regarding Starr's staff. But Blumenthal's attorney said he would try to quash the subpoena.
As Starr opens a new front in his inquiry, Terry F. Lenzner said last night that his firm, Investigative Group Inc. (IGI), has been "retained by Williams & Connolly," the law firm representing Clinton in Starr's investigation of whether Clinton may have obstructed justice by urging Lewinsky to lie about having had a sexual relationship with him.
Lenzner said that he would not discuss the details of his firm's work for Clinton but said that if his investigators were looking into the backgrounds of members of Starr's staff, "I'd say there was nothing inappropriate about that."
On Sunday, the White House issued a categorical denial that it "or any of President Clinton's private attorneys has hired or authorized any private investigator to look into the background of . . . investigators, prosecutors or reporters."
White House officials at the time would not discuss whether private investigators had been retained to aid Williams & Connolly in any other way in preparing Clinton's defense. It is not uncommon for law firms to hire private investigators to gather evidence and interview witnesses, but legal experts said digging up information about prosecutors themselves would be an unusual and risky tactic.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said last night, "We stand by the statement we made over the weekend."
Asked if he had been subpoenaed, Lenzner said, "I don't want to say anything about that" but said he expected Starr to make his work for the Clinton law firm publicly known today. He described his activities for the Clinton team as "very benign" and said "the rumors I've heard . . . are so far off the wall that it's hard to give any of it credibility."
The subpoena served on Blumenthal on Saturday requires him to appear this morning and turn over "any and all documents referring to the Office of Independent Counsel," as well as those referring to any members of Starr's staff and any contacts Blumenthal may have had with the media regarding Starr's office.
Starr also sought last weekend to subpoena former commerce secretary Mickey Kantor, one of the attorneys representing Clinton in Starr's investigation. Sources familiar with the situation said that the subpoena was never actually served and later dropped after Kantor argued he could not be compelled to testify because of attorney-client privilege. Kantor did not return calls yesterday seeking comment.
The subpoenas signaled a sharp escalation by Starr in the increasingly fast-paced and tense legal battle between the independent counsel and the White House. They came as Starr spokeswoman Debbie Gershman last night described the prosecutor's office as under siege by media queries regarding alleged professional and personal misconduct in the past by members of Starr's staff.
Starr's efforts to determine whether negative information is being spread by the White House follow charges two weeks ago by Clinton's legal team that prosecutors were leaking grand jury information detrimental to the president and a demand for a formal inquiry into Starr's conduct.
The White House has not disputed that Clinton allies may have provided reporters with detailed background information questioning the professional conduct of at least two senior Starr deputies, saying it is legitimate to scrutinize the records of public officials.
Published news reports have appeared noting that both Michael Emmick, a former federal prosecutor in California, and Bruce Udolf, a former Georgia district attorney and Miami federal prosecutor, were involved in prosecutions in which their aggressive tactics came under criticism.
A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution column recalled a controversial 1985 Georgia case that resulted in Udolf's being fined for violating the civil rights of a defendant. A two-page "fact sheet" charging that Emmick "has a history of prosecutorial excess" was provided by a White House official to a TV network.
According to Gershman, Starr's office has received more than 20 calls from news organizations seeking information on these matters, as well as about the personal lives of the two.
Asked last night about Gershman's statement, White House spokesman Michael McCurry said angrily: "I don't pretend to be able late at night to detail every White House contact with unnamed reporters. It's rather chilling for us to have The Washington Post ask how news organizations develop information from the White House."
Jo Marsh, Blumenthal's attorney, said: "We view this as an attempt to stifle criticism of the independent counsel's office. Journalists certainly should be outraged and so should members of the general public." This kind of thing "doesn't happen in America," she said, saying it recalled "the old star chamber or the Gestapo. Just outrageous."
She said the subpoena did not cite any time period and therefore applied not only to his service at the White House but also to his previous career as a reporter. A longtime journalist who once worked for the New Republic and The Washington Post, Blumenthal was hired after Clinton's 1992 election by the New Yorker, where he wrote frequently in support of the president.
Last summer, he became a presidential assistant, and is known among colleagues as a confidant of Hillary Rodham Clinton and the leading proponent of the theory that Starr's probe is part of what the first lady has called a "vast right-wing conspiracy" to bring down the Clintons.
Lenzner has long-standing ties to the Clinton White House and the Democratic Party. He was hired by Clinton's now-defunct legal defense fund in 1996 to investigate contributions from Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, who has since been indicted on unrelated campaign finance charges. Lenzner also worked for the Democratic National Committee last year on an audit of its contributions stemming from the campaign fund-raising scandal.
A source familiar with IGI said that before his current work for Williams & Connolly, Lenzner had been commissioned by a Clinton backer, but not the White House, to research Starr's legal work for tobacco companies. The source said that IGI, at the behest of Clinton attorney Robert S. Bennett, also investigated who was financing the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit against the president.
Lenzner said last night that his work for Williams & Connolly has been legitimate. "You could take whatever we've done . . . and put it on the front page of The Washington Post and I wouldn't mind a bit."
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