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Starr Defends Probe Against Attacks

Starr Independent counsel Kenneth Starr is sworn in at the beginning of the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearings. (AFP)

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  • By Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, November 20, 1998; Page A1

    Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr vigorously defended his investigation into President Clinton yesterday in the face of relentless Democratic attacks on his own integrity as the House Judiciary Committee conducted an impeachment hearing electrified by partisanship.

    Appearing publicly for the first time to explain his impeachment referral, Starr accused the president of engaging in a "pattern of obstruction" to illegally conceal his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and declared that he would "stand behind each word" of his sexually explicit report to Congress.

    But committee Democrats and the president's attorney quickly transformed the nationally televised hearing into a daylong debate about Starr's conduct, rather than Clinton's. Hardly contesting the factual evidence Starr presented against the president, Democrats focused instead on how the independent counsel gathered it, assailing him as a "federally paid sex policeman" who ran an unethical investigation and had a conflict of interest in probing matters connected to the Paula Jones case.

    The marathon 12-hour appearance was punctuated by a dramatic confrontation last night between Starr and Clinton attorney David E. Kendall, who grilled the independent counsel during a testy cross-examination that prompted the chief prosecutor to declare he would no longer brook assaults on his character.

    "I've chosen until now not to reply, but I think the code of silence sometimes in terms of basic fairness gets to come to an end," Starr said at the end of the evening. "We have been listening month after month that it's a political witch hunt and that was unfair, but we've learned it goes with the territory."

    The session marked the start and perhaps the end of the committee's public hearings into Starr's evidence as lawmakers grapple with only the third presidential impeachment inquiry in the nation's history. Appearing in the same vaulted-ceiling hearing room where the committee voted to impeach President Richard M. Nixon in 1974, Starr has been the only witness summoned to testify in open session.

    Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) has tried to restrict the inquiry to a bare minimum of fact-finding beyond the testimony already assembled by Starr, saying he wants a resolution by year's end that could include a vote on articles of impeachment in the next few weeks. Rather than bring more witnesses before the committee, Hyde and the Republican majority overrode Democratic objections early this morning to subpoena four other witnesses who will be questioned in private depositions.

    The interviews will focus on whether anyone associated with the president tried to influence the testimony of Kathleen E. Willey, the former White House volunteer who has accused Clinton of groping her in the Oval Office suite. Two of the subpoenas will go to Daniel Gecker, her lawyer, and Nathan Landow, the Democratic developer she has said talked with her about changing her account in the Jones case.

    The committee also will subpoena Robert S. Bennett, the president's chief attorney in the Jones case, and deputy White House counsel Bruce R. Lindsey, a longtime Clinton confidant. But while Democrats relented on Lindsey, they objected to the other three and the panel met in closed session until after midnight haggling over the issue.

    But yesterday, Starr was cast in the role of star witness and primary accuser against Clinton. Hyde yesterday invited the president to come and present his own side before the committee with "unlimited time" and likewise told Kendall he could make a lengthy presentation defending Clinton if he likes.

    The White House made no response last night, but Kendall derided the inquiry. "Let me begin with the simple but powerful truth that nothing in this overkill of investigation amounts to a justification for the impeachment of the president of the United States," he said.

    Clinton himself was far from Capitol Hill as the panel considered his alleged misconduct, having left Washington the day before for Tokyo as part of a six-day trip to Japan, South Korea and Guam. The staff he left behind watched mostly with a sense of confidence that the proceedings would not alter strong public sentiment against removing the president from office.

    Still, the ghosts of the last impeachment crisis were evident in the jampacked chambers yesterday. Hanging over the committee's dais in the Rayburn House Office Building was a portrait of Peter W. Rodino, the Democratic chairman from New Jersey who led the panel through that tense period leading to Nixon's resignation 24 years ago. Sitting alongside a battery of other Clinton lawyers was Charles F.C. Ruff, the final Watergate special prosecutor who now serves as White House counsel. And members frequently invoked the words of Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski as they quizzed Starr.

    A 52-year-old former federal appeals judge, Starr kept his cool through more than 10 hours of often hostile interrogation from the committee lawyers and members, calmly disputing the criticisms and describing his methods as standard prosecutorial techniques. It was only when his longtime adversary, Kendall, began his line of inquiry in the middle of prime time last night that the independent counsel became visibly annoyed, engaging in a testy exchange over whether he illegally leaked information or mistreated witnesses.

    Kendall noted that a federal judge has found a prima facie case for investigating whether 24 news reports contained leaked information from prosecutors. "Mr. Starr, in fact, there has been no case remotely similar to this in terms of the massive leaking from the prosecutor's office and I think we know that," Kendall told Starr.

    "I totally disagree with that," Starr shot back. "That's an accusation and it's an unfair accusation. I completely reject it. . . . I don't believe anyone has leaked grand jury information."

    Kendall got his chance to question the prosecutor on the issue, at least to a limited extent, something he has sought to do in a court setting without success.

    Starr charged that Kendall sought the inquiry "to find out as much information inside the prosecutor's office as you possibly could." And he all but accused Kendall of being responsible for the leaks blamed on prosecutors, noting that the president's attorney has access to much of the same information through cooperation with many witnesses and their lawyers.

    "When you look at the information that we had in our office, and the FBI, as opposed to information that you had access to, it never, never entered the public domain," said Starr. He noted that the critical DNA test results from the famous blue dress that proved Clinton's sexual relationship with Lewinsky did not leak. "Those were never in the public domain, because you did not have a witness in your joint defense arrangements, who you could debrief and tell you."

    The deadly seriousness of the day was offset at times by moments of levity. At one point, Republican members grumbled aloud when Hyde kept allowing Democratic counsel Abbe D. Lowell extra time for questions.

    "I have a surly bunch of Republicans," Hyde quipped.

    "Do you feed them?" asked Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

    If Hyde had not, Starr did. Republicans welcomed the independent counsel's testimony, asking mostly friendly questions and heaping as much praise on him as Democrats heaped scorn. At the end of the day, the GOP members and a sizable share of the audience rose in a standing ovation, while their Democratic colleagues sat out the moment.

    Starr opened with a two-hour, 15-minute statement that amounted to a dry recitation of the facts and contentions in his 453-page report sent to the House in September, but this time with G-rated twist. Instead of the sexual detail that dominated that referral, Starr focused instead on the issue of truth-telling.

    Other than references to Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit, Starr spoke the words "sex" or "sexual" just four times through his opening remarks, compared with at least 60 times he used variations on the words "truth" or "lying."

    "No one is entitled to lie under oath simply because he or she does not like the questions or because he believes the case is frivolous or that it is financially motivated or politically motivated," Starr said, implicitly rebutting Clinton's own charge that the Jones case was an illegitimate suit pursued by his political enemies.

    Starr continued to press his argument that Clinton abused the power of his office to cover up the affair by asserting various privileges to prevent advisers from testifying, although even committee Republicans have rejected that as an impeachable offense. And he seemed to swing back and forth in his assessment of his star witness, describing Lewinsky as eminently credible at some points and at others calling her a "felon" when defending his prosecutors' initial confrontation with her.

    Starr also would not rule out the prospect of charging Clinton criminally. Asked by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) whether he might indict Clinton when his term as president is over in two years, Starr deflected the question, but noted there "is strength in the proposition that no one is above the law."

    While damning Clinton for the Lewinsky matter, though, Starr finally cleared him in relation to the firing of White House travel office workers in 1993 and the improper collection of FBI files revealed in 1996. He said his office drafted an impeachment referral stemming from Whitewater last year, but decided not to send it because the evidence was insufficient. One key witness, former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker (D), has exonerated Clinton regarding some aspects of the financial dealings, Starr reported.

    Democrats found only limited comfort in this, accusing Starr of holding back positive assessments of Clinton for political reasons. And they wasted little time attacking his dogged pursuit of the Lewinsky investigation, with ranking Democrat John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) issuing a withering attack even before Starr said a word.

    "While an independent counsel can and should pursue a case with vigor, I and many others believe that Mr. Starr has crossed the line into obsession," Conyers said, as Starr watched impassively from his seat.

    Among other things, Democrats focused on what they considered Starr's harsh treatment of Lewinsky during a January sting at a Virginia hotel, his contacts with Jones's lawyers before he took office as independent counsel and his disregard for exculpatory evidence that might help the president.

    Under questioning, Starr conceded a few missteps over the course of his four-year, multi-faceted investigation, such as the time his office subpoenaed the 16-year-old son of a witness at his school, a move Starr called "a mistake."

    Democrats raised a number of allegations about the investigation that Starr responded to in detail yesterday for the first time:

    Democrats accused Starr of failing to inform Justice Department officials of his previous contacts with Jones's lawyers when his office first requested authority to investigate the information about Lewinsky and Clinton contained on Linda R. Tripp's secret tapes.

    In 1994, after Jones filed her sexual harassment lawsuit against the president, Starr publicly disputed Clinton's argument that a sitting president should be immune from civil lawsuits. Starr considered, but decided against, signing onto a friend-of-the-court brief and was contacted several times about some of the constitutional questions by Jones lawyer Gilbert K. Davis, he said.

    "It all was in the public domain," Starr said, explaining why he did not raise the issue with the Justice Department. "Fault my judgment if you will, but it just frankly did not occur to me."

    Starr also said he did not recall ever hearing that one of his law partners at the Chicago-based firm Kirkland & Ellis had once been asked to represent Jones or that the partner may have helped her find lawyers who would take the case.

    Lowell, the Democratic counsel, sought to suggest that Starr could have prevented the cooperation between Tripp and the Jones lawyers the night before Clinton's Jan. 17 deposition, when she briefed them on the Lewinsky matter after she had already begun working with the independent counsel.

    Starr did not respond directly to Lowell's questions about why he did not instruct Tripp not to talk to the Jones lawyers. But Starr argued that he could not have been colluding with the Jones lawyers on the Lewinsky probe since "we began working almost instantly at cross purposes with the Jones lawyers." In fact, Starr noted, he petitioned the court handling the Jones case to limit discovery about Lewinsky.

    Starr responded in detail to accusations of misconduct by lawyers and investigators who accosted Lewinsky and sought her cooperation at the Ritz-Carlton at Pentagon City on Jan. 16. Democrats charged that she was prevented from calling her lawyer, Francis D. Carter, in violation of Justice Department policy.

    Starr said Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson upheld his office's actions in a still-sealed ruling filed in response to litigation initiated by the lawyer Lewinsky hired later that night, William H. Ginsburg.

    "We sought to call Mr. Carter from the Ritz-Carlton," said Starr. "That's a very important fact. . . . She did, in fact, reach out to him."

    Starr said Lewinsky did not actually get in touch with Carter, however, and suggested his prosecutors did not believe they were obliged to confer with Carter before discussing an immunity deal with Lewinsky because they considered him her civil attorney, not her criminal attorney. Moreover, he said, at the time investigators were not sure whether Carter was involved in Lewinsky's plot to draft a false affidavit denying her affair with Clinton and thought encouraging them to talk would have been risky.

    "She was, as the information came to us, a felon in the middle of committing other felonies," he said.

    As it happened, Starr made clear he later concluded that Carter was "an unwitting participant" in the matter. He was not so charitable about Ginsburg, though, later characterizing him as a unreliable and erratic. "He was rather fast and loose with the facts," Starr said.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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