By Peter Baker and Toni Locy
Rankled by criticism from the White House that he is abusing his prosecutorial power, Starr defended his decision to subpoena Clinton loyalists in an effort to determine whether they have disseminated derogatory information about his deputies. Starr said he was seeking out any orchestrated effort to thwart his probe, not trying to infringe on free speech.
"Our office in recent weeks has been subjected to an avalanche of lies," Starr told reporters, referring to negative news reports he suspects were generated by the White House. "The First Amendment is interested in the truth. Misinformation and distorted information have come to us about career public servants. . . . The grand jury has a legitimate interest in inquiring into whether there is an effort to impede our investigation."
Despite Starr's words, his aides yesterday avoided any new legal clashes with the Clinton administration of the sort that dominated Tuesday's grand jury session. Instead, they solicited testimony from three of Lewinsky's former colleagues about her short tenure at the White House, where she was given a paid job in late 1995, just 11 days after her alleged sexual relationship with the president began, and removed five months later.
While two of the witnesses said they had no knowledge of any sexual relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky -- the third did not comment afterward -- both were able to tell the grand jury about the circumstances of her hiring and firing at the White House, which have been key elements in Starr's investigation of whether Clinton had an affair with Lewinsky and then urged her to lie about it under oath.
A long-expected showdown over executive privilege, however, again failed to materialize as the testimony of a senior White House official was postponed. Special counsel Lanny A. Breuer, who has been among those handling damage control for Clinton, was subpoenaed to appear yesterday, but the White House has objected to Starr's asking top aides about conversations with the president.
The White House has been preparing for Clinton to invoke executive privilege to prevent such questioning, but it did not appear that the president had formally asserted the claim as of yesterday, according to several people who are close to the situation. Although presidential confidant Bruce R. Lindsey deferred answering some questions last week while Clinton considered asserting privilege, White House officials said yesterday they were continuing to try to work out a compromise with Starr.
Lewinsky, the most anticipated witness in the case, has yet to appear before the grand jury, and the public understanding of her story became somewhat murkier yesterday. Her attorney, William H. Ginsburg, said she told the truth when she denied an affair in an affidavit in the Paula Jones case and suggested that Linda R. Tripp may have manipulated tape-recorded conversations in which Lewinsky talked about having sex with the president.
"She stands by that affidavit and tells the world and is telling you and every one of your listeners that that is the truth," Ginsburg said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "Her affidavit is factual."
Ginsburg dismissed the Tripp tapes as "conversations between two girlfriends over a long period of time" and said that Tripp "chose to record what she chose to record [and] directed the conversation." Asked if Lewinsky would sue Tripp for making the tapes and turning them over to Starr, Ginsburg said, "It's certainly under consideration."
The lawyer's statements were significant because they appeared to contradict what sources have reported is contained in Lewinsky's written proffer given to prosecutors during now-collapsed negotiations over granting her immunity. In the proffer, the sources have said, Lewinsky acknowledged having a sexual relationship with Clinton, although her account of whether she was urged to deny it under oath was more muddled.
While Ginsburg has said before that his client stands by her Jan. 7 affidavit for now -- to say otherwise without immunity would expose her to a perjury charge -- yesterday's assertion that it was "the truth" represents a far stronger denial that she had a sexual relationship with the president.
Lewinsky did get a piece of good news yesterday when a benefactor offered $10,000 to start a legal defense fund. New York lawyer Rosalie Osias said her offer is part of a foundation she has established to promote her views that women need to support one another and to "use their sexuality" in the workplace. "I don't think Monica Lewinsky did anything wrong. . . . She aligned herself with a powerful man," Osias said. "Most women in the world should align themselves with a powerful man. In the real world, unless you get the hierarchy -- and they're all men -- behind you, you aren't going to get very far."
Yesterday's grand jury hearings proceeded far more smoothly than those on Tuesday, when Starr's prosecutors presented testimony about Lewinsky's job history at the same time they summoned White House aide Sidney Blumenthal and private investigator Terry F. Lenzner to disclose any involvement in circulating negative information about prosecutors.
Lenzner testified for 2 1/2 hours Tuesday but declined to answer questions directly related to his work for Clinton's defense team, citing attorney-client privilege that also covers investigators -- another dispute that may provoke litigation. Blumenthal's testimony is set to begin today.
Yesterday's witnesses included Timothy J. Keating, a former staff director who supervised Lewinsky when the then-intern was given a paid clerk's job in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs in November 1995 and banished her to the Defense Department in April 1996.
"I made the decision to hire her because she had performed her assignments well as an intern," Keating told reporters after two hours with the grand jury. "She was transferred because of dissatisfaction with [her] performance in the correspondence section of the Office of Legislative Affairs. In neither situation did I take or recommend any personnel action because of any suggested relationship with the president. In fact, I had and have no knowledge of any such relationship."
Patsy Thomasson, a former official in the White House personnel office, said much the same after her 2 1/2 hours of testimony. Her attorney, Jeffrey S. Jacobovitz, said his client was "the facilitator, the intermediary" in Lewinsky's ouster, acting at the request of Keating, who told her the young clerk "should be moved out of the White House." Thomasson had heard from other White House officials that Lewinsky "was performing her job properly when she was working at her desk, but was away from her desk too often" and "was essentially loitering in the West Wing too often," Jacobovitz said.
Nancy Hernreich, a longtime Clinton aide dating to his days as Arkansas governor and now a key player as director of Oval Office operations, testified for about two hours, but declined to answer questions afterward. She left the grand jury room at least once during her testimony to consult with her attorney, Gerard F. Treanor Jr., who under grand jury rules was not allowed into the room.
Hernreich keeps close tabs over who gets in to see Clinton and supervises Betty Currie, the president's personal secretary who arranged job interviews and White House visits for Lewinsky after she moved to the Pentagon.
Even as testimony proceeds before the grand jury, officials said yesterday that Starr has been thwarted twice in recent weeks in his attempt to launch investigations into whether his office illegally disclosed grand jury information. Clinton's attorney, David E. Kendall, has demanded a formal probe of what he charged were illegal leaks from Starr's office and the independent counsel has tried to preempt that with an internal inquiry.
Starr first requested that he be given FBI agents to handle the probe. After that was rejected he asked Michael E. Shaheen Jr., retired head of the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, to head up an inquiry, the officials said. Shaheen agreed as long as several conditions were met, including total independence from Starr. Shaheen went to see Attorney General Janet Reno and Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. last week, but on Thursday was told by Holder that he should not proceed, they said.
Holder insisted that Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who is supervising the Starr grand jury, should decide how the matter was handled. Holder acted in part out of concern that Justice would appear to be favoring Starr if it acceded to the prosecutor's request, the officials said.
The situation involving executive privilege remained unresolved yesterday as information was tightly held because of court secrecy orders. "The White House counsel's office is trying to find a reasonable solution on this issue in ongoing discussions with the Office of Independent Counsel," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said.
A long fight over privilege could hamper Starr's investigation by diverting significant resources and dragging it out for what several legal experts estimated could be three to eight months. But if he does not mount a court challenge, Starr could forgo access to important witnesses beyond Lindsey, including Secret Service personnel and White House lawyers.
Staff writers Susan Schmidt, Amy Goldstein and Roberto Suro contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company