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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Starr's turn on the grill

Democrats want to show he broke rules in going after Clinton. But Starr has nowhere to go but up

By Michael Weisskopf and Viveca Novak/Washington

TIME magazine

Democrats who are eagerly waiting their chance to stick a fork into Ken Starr this week should be wary: the independent counsel has no place to go but up. Yes, the star witness at impeachment hearings will be forced to account for every questionable turn in his investigation of Monica Lewinsky. But Starr, often caricatured as a pious partisan out to ruin Bill Clinton at any cost, comes well trained for the contest.

As George Bush's solicitor general, he suited up every month for Supreme Court combat, often arguing with cool conviction such passionate issues as flag burning and school prayer before the feisty Justices. Later he was paid more than $1 million a year to help corporate giants uphold their legal victories and reverse their losses. His greatest strength in court has always come from his obsessive preparation out of court. Last week he spent hours in moot sessions with his assistants, who assumed the role of committee Democrats, testing him on every aspect of the case.

But the arena Starr enters Thursday is nothing like the well-mannered setting of the courtroom. The hearing could look more like a World Wrestling Federation match, a forum where Starr's words could be drowned out by jousting between, say, Barney Frank, Democratic maestro of the verbal stiletto, and Bob Barr, the humorless but relentless Republican former prosecutor. The House Judiciary Committee includes some of the most ideological members of each party, politicians more likely to go for the jugular than the essence of a witness's arguments. Starr will have to defend the logic and fairness of his actions in a place where judicial precedents don't count for much. And there will be few rules of decorum to keep lawmakers from cutting him off or shouting him down.

Democrats will try to keep Starr off balance by challenging the process rather than the findings of his investigation. Charges of illegal grand-jury leaks, which are currently under investigation by a court-appointed special master, are sure to come up. So are questions about his handling of witnesses, from the unusually high number of times (more than five, for some) that they were asked to appear before the grand jury to Starr's scouring of their private lives. The story of Julie Hiatt Steele, a peripheral figure in the case, may be aired. She has contradicted parts of the story told by Kathleen Willey about Willey's alleged sexual harassment by Clinton near the Oval Office. Investigators have combed through Steele's bank, credit and phone records, called her daughter and other family members before the grand jury, questioned her friends and neighbors and subpoenaed her tax accountant twice. They have even been inquiring about the legality of her 1990 adoption of a Romanian orphan. All these moves are apparently intended to determine whether her version of the Willey story was somehow influenced by Clinton allies. Steele says the adoption is legal in both Romania and the U.S.

Democrats are also likely to question Starr vigorously about the first days of the Lewinsky case, starting with the way he sought Justice Department authority to expand his four-year probe of the Whitewater land deal into Monicaland. Here's the Democrats' argument: Starr knew that Linda Tripp's tapes of Lewinsky were illegally obtained under Maryland law. But he wired Tripp anyway to trap the former intern in incriminating statements. And he did that before he went to the Justice Department to seek authority to pursue the allegations.

And did Starr's deputies go over the line when they first tried to secure Lewinsky's cooperation? Sources tell TIME that both the Justice Department and the District of Columbia's bar association are investigating whether Starr's prosecutors acted improperly by broaching immunity talks with Lewinsky outside the presence of her lawyer. She told the grand jury that she had been discouraged from calling her lawyer, Frank Carter, whom she had hired to draft her affidavit in the Paula Jones case. Lewinsky was also told that an immunity offer could be withdrawn if she did call Carter. A Justice Department regulation permits its prosecutors to contact so-called represented persons without their lawyers but draws the line on immunity talks. Starr may defend the action of his deputies by arguing that they saw Carter as part of a larger conspiracy to keep Lewinsky from revealing her sexual relationship with Clinton to lawyers in the Paula Jones case.

On some sensitive issues, such as the Steele investigation, Starr may be barred by grand-jury secrecy from answering questions about his prosecutorial techniques. But he may welcome the opportunity to make his case in his own voice after months of its being confined to legal documents or to empty morning banter with reporters. The Starr smiling with coffee in hand is about to become the Starr Witness.

Starr will be challenged on:

Leaks: A court-appointed investigator is probing whether Starr's office leaked secret grand-jury material to the press

Linda Tripp: She came to him with illegal tapes; then he wired her before seeking permission to investigate the Monica allegations

Badgering witnesses: Some were called before the grand jury five or more times; another had her private life--credit, phone and banking records--combed through


Cover Date: November 23, 1998

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