Delivery Catches the Hill by Surprise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 1998; Page A12
All day long House members agonized about the Starr report. Should it be published? Should it be secret? Could it stay secret? Would it come at the end of the week? Would it come at the beginning of next week?
Well, actually, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr had another idea. At 3:45 p.m. yesterday, Starr's deputy, Jackie M. Bennett, called the House sergeant at arms and the majority and minority staffs of the House Judiciary Committee. The report was on the way over. It would be at the front door of the Capitol in about 15 minutes.
It was, as many lawmakers, particularly Democrats, suggested, not a good day. First, the House was just arriving back at work after a five-week recess, a time when everyone is running around frantically trying to find out what's going on.
Second, while they were away, the Clinton administration had begun to free-fall after the president failed to satisfy his critics regarding his relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
Both parties were talking about impeachment, and lawmakers were trying to figure out what to do when the Starr report arrived. They thought they had time to work out the details, but suddenly they didn't.
"Nobody knows what to do; we've never done this before," said a senior aide to Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), after a scheduled Democratic leadership meeting late yesterday turned into an impromptu discussion of how to respond to Starr's sudden gift. "The guy dropped it on us out of the blue without giving us any warning."
And Bennett was as good as his word. One blue and one white van from Starr's office pulled up to the Capitol steps at 4 p.m. sharp and stopped. Capitol Police herded about 200 reporters, tourists and others into a grassy verge to await developments.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Gephardt were not told about the report's arrival until a few minutes after it was there -- Gingrich was in the middle of a news conference at the time -- but House Sergeant at Arms Wilson Livingood had already reserved a suite for it at the Ford House Office Building and had ordered the locks changed Tuesday night -- just in case.
"We'll have officers assigned to protect the documents and the room that the documents will be secured in," Capitol Police spokesman Dan Nichols told reporters. The report will be kept "under lock and key."
Despite the expressions of surprise at the report's summary arrival, there were indications that it was not news to everyone. According to some staffers in the vicinity of the Ford building, Capitol Police had begun putting up barriers and closing off parking spaces as early as noon.
The Ford building is the former FBI fingerprint center, a huge, ugly monolith about a quarter-mile downhill from the Capitol and probably the most secure building owned by Congress, as well as the most remote.
The two Capitol Police sport utility vehicles -- armored and much spiffier-looking than Starr's vans -- arrived at the building to be greeted by about 25 congressional staff members and two dozen reporters and cameramen. Twenty minutes later, the vehicles were empty, the boxes (two sets of 18 boxes, 36 in all) were inside and the staffers were applauding for reasons not readily apparent. A Capitol Police officer suggested they were pleased with the officers who carried the boxes.
One 24-year-old government worker who declined to identify himself said he had not stood outside but had peeked out the window during the 20-minute process. "It wasn't a big deal," he shrugged, "but it's our building's 15 minutes of fame."
At the Capitol, Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), a Judiciary Committee member and one of Clinton's most fervent critics, had hurried out in front to be interviewed as soon as he learned the report was arriving.
"This is truly historic," Barr announced, adding that he approved Starr's decision to deliver his findings directly in front of the Capitol. "I don't think this is something that should be hidden from the public. This is their country. This is the people's house."
Democrats were not as thrilled. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), a member of the minority leadership, scoffed at the vehicle convoy, the armed guards and the police who transferred the report, box by box, from Starr's vans to the Capitol Police vehicles.
"I think it needs to be kept secure, there's no question about that," Hoyer said. "But I think this was theatrical."
Abbe D. Lowell, chief investigator for Judiciary Committee Democrats, pleaded publicly for lawmakers to pause in the rush to provide constituents with access to the report.
"We're not asking a lot in order to do a job that we're proud of," Lowell said. "It ought to be that the House could take a moment to reflect."
Lowell added that he was not surprised by the turn of events, but that its pace took him off guard. "I knew this is what the job was going to be," he said. "I just didn't know it was going to be in six hours."
For the moment, the report reposed under armed guard in a room across from the office of Judiciary Republicans' chief investigator, David P. Schippers, who said he would not enter it until the House passes a resolution authorizing its review.
"I have no plans of going over the roof to get in there," he said.
Eric Pianin and Nathan Abse contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company