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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Starr's last gasps

After losing to McDougal, the prosecutor is chasing side player Julie Steele. Does this make sense?

By Viveca Novak/Washington

April 19, 1999
Web posted at: 11:43 a.m. EDT (1543 GMT)

TIME magazine

In the eyes of even his most severe critics, Ken Starr finally got one right. At a Senate hearing last week, the independent counsel whom the White House accused of being politically motivated made the argument that the statute that created him should die. His reasoning: you just can't take politics out of the process.

If Starr's surprising testimony on Capitol Hill doesn't kill the law by itself, the verdict two days earlier in Susan McDougal's trial should help. Acquitted of an obstruction-of-justice charge, and with the jury deadlocked on two criminal-contempt counts, McDougal claimed victory after a five-week trial that became a debate over Starr's tactics and motives. According to jurors, Starr was unable to persuade even a majority of the panel that McDougal had refused to cooperate with his Whitewater grand jury. Better news for Starr came later that day in Little Rock, Ark., when federal judge Susan Webber Wright ruled that Clinton had shown contempt toward her court when he lied in a deposition about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. But for a President who told Dan Rather he doesn't consider the impeachment vote a "badge of shame," the legal slap may amount to a footnote in the saga.

Starr's mixed record

Jim Guy Tucker and the McDougals: Charged with fraud and conspiracy; all were convicted on some charges.

Herby Branscum and Robert Hill: Arkansas bankers accused of misuse of bank funds; acquitted of some charges, mistrial on others.

Susan McDougal: Charged with criminal contempt and obstruction of justice; acquitted on one count, mistrial on remaining two.

Starr's methods, however, will be debated again next month in the trial of Julie Hiatt Steele of Virginia, whom he has accused of obstructing justice and making false statements. At one level, it shapes up as a petty personal contest between Steele and Kathleen Willey, the woman who said Clinton groped her in November 1993. Steele, who was Willey's friend, contradicts Willey's claim that she told Steele about the incident.

Starr's pursuit of Steele is a puzzle. Some legal observers have wondered why Starr is so willing to go to the mat for Willey that he has made Steele's indictment the only one from the Lewinsky phase of his investigation that he is pursuing, even though she has never been more than a peripheral potential witness undercutting the claims of another peripheral witness in a civil case that is now history.

And Willey has a pile of credibility issues. For one, plenty of evidence contradicts her 60 Minutes description of Clinton's allegedly upsetting grope. Linda Tripp, of all people, told Starr's FBI agents last June that Willey was flirting with the President for months before the supposed incident. Tripp claimed that Willey, a White House volunteer, would call Tripp at home at night to find out Clinton's schedule so she could position herself nearby. Willey tried to work evening events at the White House and wore a particular cleavage-highlighting black dress.

After Clinton allegedly made his move, Willey described Clinton as a great kisser and speculated about becoming his girlfriend, according to Tripp's FBI interview. The same night she called another friend, Harolyn Cardozo, who told Starr's grand jury that Willey said she was going to be the Judith Exner of the Clinton White House, a reference to John Kennedy's mistress.

The problem is that Steele's credibility will become an issue too. She told a Newsweek reporter chasing the Willey story in 1997 that a distressed Willey had come to her house on the night of the alleged White House incident to tell her about it. But she called the reporter before the story was published to say she had lied to him at Willey's request. Prosecutors in Starr's office asked Steele to support Willey's story in any way she could. She didn't have to say that the alleged approach was unwanted, or even when it happened, just that Willey told her something about a sexual encounter with the President. "I couldn't do that," Steele told the McDougal jury. "I left the meeting in tears. I didn't know anything to tell them." Prosecutor David Barger has told Steele that three former friends of hers will testify that that she told them about Willey and the President. But Barger's biggest hurdle is identifying a motive that would explain why Steele has stuck so hard to her second story.

When the trial opens May 3, the cast of possible witnesses will recall the Year of Monica: Willey is likely to be Starr's star witness; Tripp may be called to undercut Willey; and Steele's lawyer Nancy Luque wants to compel an appearance by Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff. In the meantime, the former $60,000-a-year communications consultant is hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and fears losing her house in a few months. Starr, for his part, went on Larry King's show last week and complained that the worst thing about his job is that "the independent counsel is all alone." That feeling is probably one thing he has in common with his lone defendant from the Lewinsky scandal.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: April 26, 1999

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