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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Clinton's crisis: The right connection

Did the noisy world of Clinton haters find a willing ear in Starr's office?

By Richard Lacayo

TIME magazine

(TIME, October 19) -- The "vast right-wing conspiracy" that Hillary Rodham Clinton once said was out to get her husband can be a little hard to pin down. But among the President's defenders, one basic diagram goes this way: at the center is what they call the iron triangle, an illicit cooperation between independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the lawyers for Paula Jones. At the hypotenuse is Linda Tripp, the go-between who first alerted Starr to Monica Lewinsky's false affidavit in the Jones case. Around this triangle is a circle, a group of loosely affiliated Clinton haters who fostered ties among the inner threesome, always looking for ways to embarrass Clinton.

The evidence that supports this map of the world is suggestive but still mostly circumstantial. For instance, in January, on the night before Clinton's deposition in the Jones case, and just after Tripp lured Lewinsky into Starr's ambush, Tripp met with the Jones attorneys, thus putting them in a position to hit Clinton with questions about Lewinsky. And more than a year ago, Arkansas state troopers reported that Starr's Arkansas team was asking them about Clinton's relationship with Jones. Then there is the omnipresent billionaire and funder of anti-Clinton investigations, Richard Mellon Scaife, whose alleged interference in Starr's Whitewater probe is being examined by a grand jury in Arkansas.

Last week the circumstantial evidence became a bit more suggestive. In his report to Congress, Starr insists he first learned about the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky when Tripp contacted his office on Jan. 12. The story Tripp told that day--and especially the parts about Vernon Jordan's job search for Lewinsky, with its hints that Clinton was trying to buy her silence--became the basis for Starr's successful request that Attorney General Janet Reno allow him to investigate the Lewinsky matter. But according to an Oct. 4 article in the New York Times, word about the Clinton-Lewinsky connection actually came to Starr the previous week by way of a group of conservative lawyers that included Richard Porter, a partner in Kirkland & Ellis, Starr's own law firm in Chicago.

An early heads-up, which came four days before Tripp herself called Starr's deputy Jackie Bennett, would have allowed Starr more time to craft his strategy to get jurisdiction over the Lewinsky angle. And it also would have lengthened the period in which Starr was looking into the Jones case without first receiving permission from Reno, a serious problem given the Independent Counsel Act's tough rules against free-lance investigating. Starr's spokesman Charles Bakaly denies that the office began probing before Tripp called. But last week David Kendall, the President's private attorney, sent a letter to Reno asking her to look into the charges. Kendall also went further. Transcripts of the Tripp tapes show that Tripp urged Lewinsky not to sign her Jones-case affidavit, the one denying sex with Clinton, until Jordan had found her a job. Kendall suggests that Starr, to trap the President, may have prompted Tripp to push that idea on Lewinsky. Tripp's grand jury testimony also discloses that she began cooperating closely with Jones' lawyers as early as November. By January she had already provided so much information, sources told TIME, that Jones' lawyers spent only 20 minutes with her when they went to her house on the eve of the deposition.

Now that Clinton's fate is in the hands of Congress, Starr steps back from the picture. But the means by which he pursued Clinton continues to have bearing on whether the impeachment process is the inevitable outcome of an impartial investigation or the culmination of an intricate, partisan vendetta. The story here begins, as so much of it does, with Lucianne Goldberg, the New York literary agent who first suggested that Tripp tape-record her conversations with Lewinsky. In early January Lewinsky was asking Tripp to deny to Jones' lawyers that she knew about Monica's doings with the President. And Goldberg was looking for some way to get Tripp's story noticed by Starr, whose office gets its share of flimsy tips.

Friends led her to Porter, then Starr's law partner, who has already been the subject of an internal review by his firm to determine whether he was secretly helping the Jones team. "I said I'm calling for a friend who is being threatened by the President's girlfriend, who was putting a great deal of pressure on her to lie in the Jones deposition," Goldberg told TIME. Though she says she is not sure if she also mentioned the Jordan connection, she suspects she did. "I would've used my A material with these people because I was asking them to stick their necks out." Porter's lawyer denies Jordan's name came up.

Goldberg says Porter put her in touch with Jerome Marcus, a conservative law- school classmate. It was Marcus, she says, who called Starr's office with the tip in order to obscure Porter's involvement. Clinton allies argue that if one of Starr's onetime law partners was helping the President's enemies, and if Starr used information he provided, it could put Starr in violation of strict conflict-of-interest rules. Goldberg denies, however, that anyone came back to her with instructions from Starr's office to guide Tripp's manipulations of Lewinsky.

Though Reno has agreed to review Kendall's complaint, that does not rise to the level of a full-fledged investigation. Justice Department officials are wary of being dragged anywhere near the Starr-Clinton stinkfest. Denials have also started flying. Porter says he never represented or gave legal advice to Goldberg, Tripp or Jones, a Clintonesque denial that leaves room for other kinds of advice. Starr's office says Kendall's letter is full of "innuendo." And according to Bakaly, Marcus did not mention the Jordan connection in his call and was told by the Starr assistant who took it, Paul Rosensweig, that all tips had to come in the "front door." What everyone can agree upon is that one day later, Tripp was having her last lunch with Lewinsky wearing a body wire strapped on by Starr's investigators.

--Reported by Jay Branegan and Michael Weisskopf/Washington


Cover Date: October 19, 1998

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