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Questions Raised About Starr Team Talks With Jones Camp

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  • By Roberto Suro
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, March 3, 1999; Page A7

    When independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr approached the Justice Department 14 months ago seeking to investigate whether President Clinton and his allies were trying to keep Monica S. Lewinsky from testifying in the Paula Jones lawsuit, one key question was whether Starr's office had been in touch with the Jones lawyers.

    Such contacts might have disqualified Starr from pursuing the matter because of the appearance that he was in league with Clinton's enemies. The issue was important enough that Starr's chief deputy, Jackie M. Bennett, assured Justice officials there had been no such involvement. "We've had no contact with the plaintiff's [Jones'] attorneys. We're concerned about appearances," he said, according to notes made during the conversation.

    But one of Bennett's former colleagues, former deputy counsel John Bates, now says that Bennett came to him a few days before the meeting with troubling information about discussions between Starr's prosecutors and those in the Jones camp -- details that Bennett did not share with Justice officials deciding whether to give Starr the go-ahead to broaden his investigation of the president.

    Bates's recollection, first reported in a new book by Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff and amplified in an interview yesterday, could produce added pressure for an ethics investigation into Starr's office, and in particular whether he misled Attorney General Janet Reno when he sought permission to conduct the Lewinsky probe.

    Reno has privately informed Starr that she plans to investigate allegations that he abused his powers. Both Reno and Starr are due to file court papers Monday with the panel of federal judges in charge of independent counsels detailing their views about whether Justice even has the power to conduct such an investigation.

    Bates said in the interview that just a few days before the crucial encounter at the Justice Department on the night of Jan. 15, 1998, Bennett told him that there had indeed been contact with people associated with the Jones lawsuit, possibly even with the attorneys who were waging the sexual harassment case against Starr's target, Clinton.

    Isikoff's book, "Uncovering Clinton," to be published by Crown this month, quotes Bates as saying that Bennett told him, "It came directly or indirectly from people connected to the Jones legal team."

    Although Bates said the contacts raised a "warning light" in both his mind and Bennett's, Bennett did not raise the issue in his meeting with the Justice officials.

    The contact from the Jones camp was Philadelphia lawyer Jerome M. Marcus, who was working behind the scenes on the Jones case. He advised a friend in Starr's office that Lewinsky's friend, Linda S. Tripp, wanted to tell all about an alleged effort to buy Lewinsky's silence about her sexual affair with the president.

    In an interview yesterday, Bennett disputed Bates's recollection of their Jan. 9 conversation and said that at the time he did not know that Marcus was doing work for Jones.

    However, Bennett said, "I wish that in our meetings with DOJ it had occurred to me to brief them more fully on how the allegations had come to us, but that was lost in the frenetic activity of the preceding three or four days. I did not recognize it as a material omission at the time."

    Legal experts said it is particularly important that independent counsels -- who are appointed on the theory that the Justice Department has a conflict of interest in investigating high-ranking administration officials -- be above suspicion of such conflicts.

    Indeed, controversy has swirled around Starr since his selection more than four years ago because of his conservative credentials and his early role in advising the Jones lawyers on how to challenge Clinton's contention, ultimately rejected by the Supreme Court, that a president should be immune from being sued while in office.

    The question of how the Lewinsky allegations arrived on Starr's doorstep was potentially so important in deciding whether Starr should investigate the matter, or whether it should be entrusted to someone else, that Bennett "should have recognized it as a consideration Reno and the court should have been able to weigh," said New York University legal ethics expert Stephen Gillers.

    Gillers said Bennett had a "crystal-clear obligation to be totally candid . . . if asked, if not asked."

    The investigative mandate that Starr sought -- and was ultimately granted -- involved allegations that Clinton was obstructing justice by preventing the Jones lawyers from getting evidence about his sexual activities. If in fact the Jones team put Starr on that trail, then Starr's investigation could have been tainted by the appearance that he was aiding one party in a private lawsuit, Gillers said.

    The saga of how the Lewinsky allegations came to the attention of Starr's office involves a lengthy cast of characters and complex plot line worthy of a Russian novel.

    In his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last year, Starr said that "on January 8 [1998], an attorney in our office was informed that a witness who was Linda Tripp . . . had information that she wanted to provide."

    The lawyer was Paul Rosenzweig, a 1986 University of Chicago law school graduate who was called by Marcus, a classmate who had written critical briefs for the Jones case along with a crew of other conservative lawyers.

    Marcus had been recruited for the Jones suit by another classmate, Richard W. Porter, Starr's partner at the Chicago-based law firm of Kirkland & Ellis and another key invisible hand in steering legal talent to the Jones team.

    A friend of several Jones lawyers, Porter also was friendly with Lucianne Goldberg, the New York literary agent who acted as a provocateur in the Lewinsky case at several key turns. In November 1997, Porter helped Goldberg put Tripp in touch with the Jones lawyers, who mined her information about Clinton's involvement with several women, including former White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey and, eventually, Lewinsky herself.

    Then, in January 1998, Porter helped Goldberg direct Tripp to Starr's office. Goldberg called Porter during the first week of January 1998 to find out how she could alert Starr's office to the existence of Tripp, who claimed to have hard evidence that Clinton was seeking to squelch testimony damaging to him in the Jones suit. Porter, in consultation with Marcus, decided that Marcus should tell Rosenzweig in the independent counsel's office.

    On Jan. 8, Marcus met Rosenzweig, outlined what Tripp had to say and told him she was willing to work with Starr. The following day Rosenzweig informed Bennett, who asked Rosenzweig to get the word back to Tripp that she should come in "the front door" and tell them what she knew.

    Troubled by the potentially explosive nature of the allegations, Bennett wanted to get advice from Bates, who had recently left Starr's office. They now have differing recollections of how Bennett explained the origins of the information about Tripp. Isikoff twice quotes Bates as using the phrase "the Jones legal team" as the source of the allegations that Clinton was trying to silence witnesses in the Jones case.

    In an interview yesterday, Bates said he and Bennett shared a number of concerns that day, including worries about the source of the information. "My recollection is the contact was made by someone connected with Jones but I can not say for sure, I do not recall, that Mr. Bennett said it was a lawyer on the Jones team," Bates said.

    In a second conversation, Bates modified his recollection and said that it is possible that Bennett identified the origins of the claims as "someone connected with Ms. Tripp, not with someone connected with the Jones team."

    Bennett also recalled that he thought that Rosenzweig's contact was with an individual directly associated with Tripp and said he never told Bates that any Jones attorneys were involved because he did not know it at the time.

    "I was unaware on Jan. 9, 1998," Bennett said, "of any connection with the Jones legal team."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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