When will Starr pull the plug?
By Michael Weisskopf
February 8, 1999
In 1997, while teaching law part time at New York University, Ken Starr wanted his students to understand that a good trial lawyer always argues passionately, even for positions he would reject if he were the judge. So Starr turned his classroom into a moot court and pleaded--of all things--Bill Clinton's most famous court failure: the President's argument that as long as he remained in office, the Constitution immunized him from Paula Jones' civil lawsuit.
Now, with Clinton headed for acquittal in the Senate, Starr's take on presidential immunity is anything but academic. Last week the New York Times reported that the independent counsel believes he has the authority to bring criminal charges against Clinton before he leaves office. The Times piece, though it broke little new ground, jarred Clinton allies: just as they were cheering the trial's end, the newspaper offered a reminder that the last word on the scandals may belong to his nemesis. "Starr sees the President as a real lawbreaker who deserves to be put in jail," says a White House adviser. "There's no way the President can relax with him out there."
If impeachment ushered Starr offstage, it also freed up his prosecutors to work quietly on the office's next act. One murky plot line concerns Kathleen Willey's story of presidential groping, which Clinton denied to the grand jury, and what she calls intimidation to silence her. Last week Maryland private detective Jared Stern told TIME that he has appeared twice before Starr's grand jury to answer questions about Willey and Nathan Landow, a Clinton-Gore fund raiser. Landow claims that his lawyer, acting without his permission, hired Stern to investigate Willey. Stern won't comment on who hired him, but he does say that prosecutors asked him if he was the so-called mystery man who allegedly made menacing comments to Willey about her children. Stern says it wasn't he, but that he has reason to believe her claim.
Another coming chapter is the prosecution of Julie Hiatt Steele, Willey's former confidant who was indicted last month on charges of perjury and obstruction. Starr's team is also preparing for trials of two previously jailed Whitewater figures: Webster Hubbell (on the charge of making false statements) and Susan McDougal (on the charge of criminal contempt for stiff arming Starr's inquiries). The onetime Clinton confidants have long been suspected of withholding dirt, but if they haven't cracked yet, it's hard to imagine they ever will. The ultimate question for Starr is what to do legally with the case that fell short politically. A sign that an indictment isn't imminent is the departure for private practice of Starr's day-to-day manager of the Lewinsky probe, Bob Bittman, and his top appellate litigator, Brett Kavanaugh. Soon after the trial ends, Starr will come under pressure to shut it all down and return to private practice. He is famously immune to such pressure, but if he decides not to indict Clinton, there's little reason to keep going. He could hand his open cases to the Justice Department and move on.
Then what? Starr will be able to command hefty sums practicing law, writing a book, giving lectures or advising corporate boards. And he will probably indulge his passion for teaching, as he planned to do in 1997 when he accepted a dual deanship at Pepperdine University, only to bow out and lose the opportunity after he was accused of abandoning ship. Whatever job Starr ends up taking instead, will he ever be able to shake his sense of unfinished business left behind?
--By Michael Weisskopf
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Cover Date: February 15, 1998
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