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Starr, Reno have 15 days to comment on possible independent counsel probe

February 23, 1999
Web posted at: 10:41 p.m. EST (0341 GMT)

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, February 23) -- The question of whether Attorney General Janet Reno has authority to investigate allegations of misconduct by Ken Starr's office may be decided by the three-judge panel that appointed him.

CNN has learned the panel has given Reno and Starr 15 days to outline their positions on the question of whether the Justice Department should investigate the independent counsel.

The panel's action is in response to a motion filed by the Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law firm. The foundation has asked the court to bar Reno from probing allegations of wrongdoing by Starr's staff.

"We hope the court's order is the first step towards stopping the attorney general's persistent efforts to undermine Judge Starr's authority and independence," Mark Levin, president of Landmark Legal Foundation, told CNN.

The three-judge panel is headed by David Sentelle of Washington.

The question of a possible investigation of Starr's office has chilled relations between the Justice Department and the Office of Independent Counsel.

The issue is extraordinarily sensitive in part because the independent counsel statute provides for no disciplinary action other than removal of an independent counsel if allegations of wrongdoing are found to be proven.

Originally, Reno had proposed that the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility conduct the investigation of Starr and his staff.

However, Starr expressed concerns about the agency's involvement in a potential probe in a recent letter to Reno. Since that time, Justice officials have been struggling to construct a plan that would appear fair to Starr.

Reno now is considering bringing in an outside investigator to look into allegations of misconduct by Starr's office.

Among the options being discussed is having someone from a U.S. attorney's office outside of the Justice Department headquarters lead the investigation.

Also under consideration is choosing someone completely outside of the Justice Department, such as a former or retired judge.

According to sources familiar with the deliberations, the ideal situation would be to appoint someone with a Republican background or an independent.

There are two primary allegations of misconduct against Starr's office. The first concerns the discussion of an immunity deal by members of Starr's team with Monica Lewinsky without her attorney present during the January 1998 sting operation set up by the independent counsel's office with the help of Linda Tripp. That would have been against Justice Department guidelines.

The other allegation concerns whether the Office of the Independent Counsel withheld information about its contact with attorneys affiliated with Paula Jones, who had filed a sexual harassment claim against President Clinton, when Starr approached Reno for authorization to expand his investigation into the Lewinsky matter.

The key question there is whether the attorney general would have thought contacts with Jones' associates would have presented a conflict of interest as Starr investigated the harassment claim.

In addition, the Justice Department also is awaiting the results of an investigation into alleged leaks of grand jury material. That investigation was set in motion by Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who oversees the Starr grand jury.

Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.


Investigating the President

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Tuesday, February 23, 1999

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