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Few Cracks in Starr's Mostly Genial Mask

Starr Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. (Reuters)

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  • By George Lardner Jr. and Dan Morgan
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, November 20, 1998; Page A1

    After all the buildup by his enemies, the fearsome prosecutor turned out to be an ordinary mortal. Deliberate, precise and courteous, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr seemed for most of the day like the genial senior partner of a law firm that a young lawyer might take home for tea with his mother.

    It was not until he dueled with President Clinton's personal lawyer late into the evening did the audience see glimpses of the combative, tight-lipped prosecutor who has been relentlessly pursuing the president for more than four years.

    With David E. Kendall, the president's attorney, scolding Starr for alleged leaks to the news media, the independent counsel, unflappable for most of the day, suddenly bristled.

    "That's an accusation and it's an unfair accusation. I completely reject it," Starr said when Kendall charged that there had been "massive leaking from the prosecutor's office."

    Then, implying that Clinton's lawyers had been behind many of the alleged leaks, Starr observed that reporters never obtained information held only by his office, such as the results of DNA tests on Monica S. Lewinsky's semen-stained dress. He said leaks took place only when lawyers from the president's camp reported back to the White House about testimony by their clients.

    The duel between two of Washington's most prominent attorneys began with an outwardly friendly exchange. "How are you, David?" Starr asked. "I'm very well, Ken," Kendall replied, eliciting laughter from members who knew of their rivalry. As tempers flared, it became "Mr. Kendall" and "Mr. Starr."

    Much of the sparring was inside baseball, reflecting frustration on Kendall's part over the prolonged investigations and Starr's exasperation over what he called White House obstructionism and spin-doctoring. Kendall jabbed Starr by asking whether he had hired private detectives to find old Clinton girlfriends.

    "No, we never hired Terry Lenzner," Starr shot back, referring to the private investigator Kendall's firm, Williams & Connolly, had hired for still unspecified purposes.

    When he worked at the Justice Department, Starr was known as "the Solicitous General," and for much of the day he was genial and mild-mannered.

    "For those who think he's a terrible, horrible person, he didn't look like a terrible, horrible person," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). "He handled himself well," Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) said during a break in yesterday's House Judiciary Committee hearing.

    But in his effort to persuade the committee that Clinton deserved to be the third American president to warrant articles of impeachment, Starr, 52, sustained a few cuts and fueled some doubts over his office's initial encounters with Lewinsky, his dealings with the news media, and just when was it he first heard there might be a tape of a woman talking about sexual contact with Clinton.

    Starr and his prosecutors ostensibly knew nothing about the tapes until Lewinsky's motherly confidante, Linda R. Tripp, called their office last January and told them of her recorded conversations with the former White House intern.

    Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) asked Starr whether he talked to anyone in November 1997 about "the possibility that a tape recording might exist on which a woman claimed to have had sexual contact with the president."

    "I am not recalling that," Starr replied. "The specificity of your question suggests there may be information, and I'm happy to respond to information if that is if that's if that's relevant. ... This is the first time anyone has asked me such a question. ..."

    Lofgren: "So it is possible that it was before January, then?"

    "Yes," Starr said. "But you said very specifically November of 1997, so that's and I will search my recollection."

    By the time Kendall got around to questioning him last night, Starr had evidently made his search and emphatically denied hearing of any such tapes before January.

    Starr's quick mind also found its match in an exchange with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who prides himself on swift repartee.

    Questioned by Frank about possible leaks to the news media in violation of grand jury secrecy rules, Starr sputtered: "Well, with all respect, I think that is an unfair question, and the reason I do. ..."

    At that point Frank cut in to say he would withdraw it, but added a tart shot at Starr: "You're the expert on unfair questions," he said. Starr laughed.

    The independent counsel also displayed a penchant for hairsplitting when chief Democratic investigative counsel Abbe B. Lowell asked him about his office's encounter with Lewinsky last Jan. 16 when she showed up for what she thought would be a lunch with Tripp at the Ritz Carlton in Pentagon City.

    Lewinsky told a grand jury in August that she had been accosted by two FBI agents who flashed their badges at her and when she asked to see her attorney Frank Carter, they discouraged her. So she went upstairs with them and was told she was under investigation. When she said she wanted to call her mother, Starr deputy Jackie Bennett told her: "You're 24, you're smart, you're old enough, you don't need to call your mommy."

    Under questioning by Lowell in light of a Jan. 23 news release Starr issued, suggesting Lewinsky had been treated quite gently, Starr insisted the meeting was "consensual" and that "we made it clear she was not under arrest." Starr also argued that Carter was not really her lawyer because this was a criminal matter and he was representing her only in a civil case.

    At other points, Starr's smiling, affable exterior slipped to show the hard edge for which he is better known. He described Lewinsky as "a felon in the middle of committing [another] felony" by trying to get Tripp to lie. And when he spoke of Lewinsky's mother, he made her sound almost like a mafia conspirator. He said she "may have been involved in serious activity, in serious criminal offenses."

    He was talking, he said, about reports that the mother, Marcia Lewis, was offering help to finance an operation for Tripp, so she could avoid being required to testify in the Paula Jones lawsuit against Clinton.

    He reserved his greatest contempt for William D. Ginsburg, the Los Angeles lawyer who represented Lewinsky in the early months of the scandal. Starr's office negotiated unsuccessfully with Ginsburg for Lewinsky's cooperation before finally reaching a deal after Ginsburg was replaced by Jacob Stein and Plato Cacheris.

    When Kendall mentioned an article Ginsburg had written accusing prosecutors of mistreating Lewinsky, Starr replied: "Mr. Ginsburg is wrong, and he must know that he is wrong. He was wrong then, and it is a calumny to repeat that now. Mr. Ginsburg was not known for his consistency of articulating positions."

    Starr's most heartfelt testimony came when Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) asked what kept him going in view of the "enormous persecution" he and his family have endured.

    "I would love to be back in private life," Starr said wistfully of the time he had planned to move to become dean of Pepperdine University's law school, "before Monica Lewinsky ever walked into the nation's life."

    "I'd even looked at a house in Malibu Country Estates," he said. "That's where I would like to be . . . living my life with my family."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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