Court Probing Starr's Office for Leaks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 31, 1998; Page A6
The judge presiding over the Monica S. Lewinsky grand jury cited 24 news stories as possible violations of secrecy rules by the office of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in ordering a special leak investigation, according to court documents unsealed yesterday.
In a Sept. 25 ruling made public yesterday, Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson concluded that the news reports suggested "serious and repetitive" violations of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure that prohibit prosecutors from revealing information about matters before a grand jury.
To look into the allegations, Johnson took the unusual step of naming her own special investigator, known as a "special master," who is operating in secret and will report only to her. The judge granted the investigator broad authority to hire a staff and to subpoena testimony and documents, including "telephone records, telephone logs, letters, facsimiles, notes, memoranda, appointment records, visitor logs, calendars, etc.," from Starr's office and from "all relevant parties."
The name of the special master, who is supposed to start reporting to Johnson on a monthly basis in November, was not disclosed. It is not known whether any testimony has been taken or subpoenas issued in the investigation, which itself is under strict secrecy rules.
Johnson acted in response to formal complaints brought by attorneys for President Clinton and two of his top aides, Bruce Lindsey and Sidney Blumenthal, that Starr's office had deliberately leaked grand jury secrets in an effort to damage Clinton politically.
White House special counsel Gregory Craig said of yesterday's ruling, "This lends credence to what we have been saying all along. We believe that the Office of the Independent Counsel has been waging a campaign of leaks against the president, in an improper effort to influence public and congressional opinion, and it has done so in direct violation of federal laws safeguarding the confidentiality of grand jury proceedings."
Starr spokesman Charles Bakaly denied the allegations, saying that "at all times this office has acted in an appropriate, lawful and ethical fashion."
When the House Judiciary Committee opens its impeachment inquiry next month, Clinton's defenders expect to cite leaks from Starr's office as one of several areas of alleged misconduct, and Starr may be called to testify before the panel.
Rule 6(e) of the rules of criminal procedure prohibits federal prosecutors or any personnel working on a federal investigation from disclosing matters before a grand jury and states that knowing violations may be punished as a contempt of court. Johnson's order broadly defines "matters" before a grand jury to include not only witnesses' testimony, but also information that would reveal the identity of witnesses and the strategy or direction of the investigation as well as information likely to come before the grand jury at some future date.
Grand jury witnesses are free to discuss their own testimony.
The 24 news reports cited in Johnson's order as possible evidence of unlawful leaks were originally catalogued by lawyers for Clinton and his aides in pressing their complaints against Starr. After individually reviewing the content and the attribution of the news reports, Johnson accepted the White House view that each one constituted prima facie evidence – evidence that at first sight supports an allegation – that someone in Starr's office could have violated Rule 6(e).
Starr's spokesman noted that there is a very low threshold for accepting a fact as prima facie evidence of possible wrongdoing.
"It is a minimal standard and now we are in the position of proving a negative – that we were not the source for these reports," Bakaly said.
Two of the news reports cited by Johnson were published in The Washington Post. One that appeared Jan. 24 recounted discussion between Starr's office and Lewinsky's attorneys over a possible immunity deal, and the other on Feb. 5 reported that Starr had rejected a proposed cooperation agreement from Lewinsky. Both articles attributed information to unnamed sources who were characterized with various terms such as "close to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr" or "close to the prosecutors."
The other reports cited by Johnson came from a variety of media, most from the early weeks of the Lewinsky investigation.
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