Justice Investigation of Starr Approved
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 1999; Page A10
A federal court yesterday cleared the way for the Justice Department to investigate independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr for alleged misconduct in the inquiry that led to President Clinton's impeachment.
The special division of appeals court judges that oversees the independent counsel process rejected an effort by the Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative advocacy group, to block the Justice Department investigation. In a seven-page opinion, the special division concluded that it lacked the authority to halt the Justice probe.
The judges wrote that they have "no power to review any actions of the Attorney General with regard to the independent counsel." That finding precludes any possible future effort by Starr himself to seek protection in the courts against a Justice investigation.
Attorney General Janet Reno advised Starr in mid-January that a disciplinary investigation would examine nine areas of possible misconduct in his perjury and obstruction of justice investigation of the president. The alleged irregularities include misleading her about contacts between his office and attorneys bringing the Paula Jones lawsuit against the president as well as failing to follow department guidelines during the initial effort to win cooperation from Monica S. Lewinsky.
With the threat of court intervention removed, the disciplinary inquiry is expected to proceed, but other than gathering information Reno has limited options. Under the independent counsel law, the only action Reno can take against Starr is to remove him from office for "good cause." That would require a finding of deliberate or gross misconduct.
Reno can also impose administrative sanctions on Justice Department lawyers working for Starr. However, almost all of the senior officials who conducted the Clinton investigation had long planned to leave Starr's office and have found jobs in the private sector, where they are not subject to Justice's internal disciplinary procedures. Starr announced this week that his chief deputy, Jackie M. Bennett, Jr., will begin a new job with an Indianapolis law firm in April.
Now that the special division has recognized her authority, Reno is expected to formally launch a factual inquiry into the allegations against Starr and his top deputies, officials said. The person she designates for the task and the way she defines the investigative mandate could color the often tumultuous relations between Starr's office and Justice for months to come.
Starr personally asked Reno last month to consider appointing a statesman-like figure from outside the department to handle the probe.
Landmark's petition for a court order argued that the investigation of Starr would interfere with his independence and thus defeat the very purpose of the independent counsel law. The special division found that the foundation, which is based in Herndon, lacked the legal standing to seek court action because it was not "even remotely" an injured party.
Starr had argued against Landmark's standing but asked the judges to leave open the possibility that he could file his own motion seeking protection from Reno. But the judges foreclosed that by ruling that they do not have jurisdiction to review the attorney general's actions.
In a separate court case, a federal judge here yesterday threw out the opening charge in a 15-count indictment brought last fall against Webster L. Hubbell by Starr but left the rest of the case intact.
U.S. District Judge James Robertson dismissed a charge that Hubbell schemed to cover up work he did in the mid-1980s for a failed Arkansas savings and loan, ruling that the count was too vague.
In an 18-page opinion, Robertson wrote that prosecutors have no right to prosecute schemes in the "abstract." The rest of the indictment remains standing, including charges of false statements and perjury concerning work Hubbell and his then-law partner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, did for Madison Guaranty S&L, the thrift owned by the late James B. McDougal, the Clintons' Whitewater business partner.
Hubbell, who has denied wrongdoing, is accused of lying to federal regulators and Congress about work he performed along with Hillary Clinton on Madison's Castle Grande project, a problem-plagued real estate development that helped trigger the S&L's collapse. Hillary Clinton is not charged in the case.
Defense lawyer John W. Nields Jr. declined comment on Robertson's ruling yesterday. Still pending is another defense motion that asks Robertson to dismiss the case because Starr waited too many years before filing it. The defense contends that the lapse of time has hurt Hubbell because key witnesses are either dead or in ill health.
In the Senate yesterday Sens. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced a measure to terminate the Starr investigation and other pending independent counsel probes by year's end, only to have it killed on the Senate floor three hours later.
"Ken Starr is like the Energizer bunny," Harkin told reporters. "He just keeps going on and on, and the bills keep piling up. It's time to close it down."
Torricelli and Harkin presented the measure as an amendment to a pending emergency spending bill on the Senate floor, but it generated little enthusiasm and was killed without a recorded vote after brief debate. Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee studying the independent counsel statute, called the amendment "a terribly bad idea."
Staff writers Bill Miller and Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report.
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