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Starr Aide Resigns, May Face Prosecution

Charles Bakaly Charles Bakaly, former spokesman for independent counsel Kenneth Starr, maintains his innocence. (AP Photo)

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  • By Roberto Suro
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, March 12, 1999; Page A1

    Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr yesterday asked the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against his spokesman for allegedly leaking information damaging to President Clinton to a newspaper and then lying about his acts to investigators, officials said.

    The spokesman, Charles G. Bakaly III, abruptly resigned yesterday, and his attorney said in a statement that Bakaly would cooperate "in every way" with the Justice Department inquiry into improper disclosures of information from Starr's office. Bakaly maintains his innocence, officials said.

    The investigation of Bakaly stems from a Jan. 31 New York Times article reporting that Starr had concluded he had the constitutional authority to seek a criminal indictment against Clinton while the president was still in office. An internal investigation into the leak conducted by FBI agents assigned to Starr's office turned up evidence indicating that Bakaly had lied in sworn statements denying that he was the source of the report, officials said. "After having been provided with the preliminary results of the internal investigation, this Office has referred the matter to the Department of Justice," said a statement by Starr's office in which the independent counsel expressed his "regret" over Bakaly's resignation.

    For years, Clinton's supporters have accused Starr's office of improperly leaking information. Starr's decision to send the matter to the Justice Department an implicit admission that he suspects serious wrongdoing on his own staff could provide his critics with their most powerful ammunition yet.

    The potential criminal investigation of a top Starr aide comes as Starr himself is battling Justice over how it will conduct a separate disciplinary inquiry into the independent counsel's alleged misconduct in the investigation that led to Clinton's impeachment.

    The already-tense dealings between Starr and the Justice Department reached a new rhetorical pitch yesterday as Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. angrily dismissed as "crap" accusations by one of Starr's former deputies that disciplinary action against Starr was designed to disrupt Starr's investigation of Clinton.

    "The closer and closer the office gets to the president of the United States, the more they [the Justice Department] want to investigate," said Robert J. Bittman, who was a top prosecutor for Starr in the Clinton case. Appearing on CNN's "Burden of Proof" Tuesday, Bittman, who left Starr's office Jan. 29, accused Justice officials of leaking information damaging to Starr and said, "obviously someone at the department has it in for the Office of Independent Counsel."

    At the Justice Department's weekly news conference yesterday, Holder emphasized his point by spelling out the epithet he chose as a retort to Bittman's accusations, telling reporters, "That's c-r-a-p."

    The article that prompted the investigation of Bakaly cited "several associates of Mr. Starr" as its sources. The day after it appeared at the height of Clinton's impeachment trial, Bakaly said, "we did not leak this information."

    Although the article did not specify whether an indictment of the president was being actively contemplated by Starr's office in expectation of Clinton's acquittal, leading politicians of both parties chose to interpret the story as a signal of Starr's intentions.

    Clinton's private attorney, David E. Kendall, immediately demanded a new leak investigation, and congressional Democrats charged that it was an attempt to influence votes in the Senate trial by someone in Starr's office. Starr, who has repeatedly denied that his office is the source of unauthorized leaks, said he was "deeply troubled" by the article and immediately launched his own internal investigation.

    At the time, Starr was already under scrutiny by a special investigator appointed by Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson to look into possible violations of the federal rules prohibiting prosecutors from disclosing information related to grand jury investigations. After the article appeared, the special investigator, Senior Judge John W. Kern III, also began looking into the Times report in a proceeding that remains under seal.

    Starr's simultaneous internal leak investigation produced material potentially contradicting Bakaly's sworn testimony to Kern, the officials said. The independent counsel then informed the Justice Department of his conclusions yesterday afternoon but had yet to send the potential evidence.

    "When we receive the information, we will determine how best to proceed," said department spokesman Myron Marlin. Department officials said there is still the possibility that they will find the information from Starr does not support any further action as it is often difficult to prove that an individual is the source of information in a newspaper article.

    In a statement, Bakaly's attorney, Howard M. Shapiro, said it was part of Bakaly's job "to respond to media inquiries" about the work of Starr's office. Given Bakaly's regular contact with reporters, Shapiro said, "it is no surprise that he has been interviewed in connection with the the inquiry" into a potential leak from Starr's office to the Times.

    Shapiro, a former FBI general counsel, concluded, "we are confident that he will be found not to have violated any statute, regulation or court order."

    Bakaly, 43, first made his mark in Washington arranging White House media events during Ronald Reagan's first administration. He subsequently returned to his native Los Angeles, where he practiced law with Donald C. Smaltz, later to become an independent counsel assigned to investigate allegations that former agriculture secretary Mike Espy received gifts and entertainment from companies he regulated. (Espy was acquitted on all counts last December.) Bakaly came back to Washington as chief spokesman for Smaltz, and then moved to Starr's office last spring. Bakaly is being put on paid administrative leave until June 1.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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