Starr Expected to Keep Pressing Criminal Case
For President Clinton’s defenders, it’s one sexual harassment lawsuit down but one related criminal investigation left to go.
A federal judge’s dismissal Wednesday of the Paula Corbin Jones harassment case strengthens the White House public relations effort. But the fallout from the decision will not derail independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s investigation of Clinton’s dealings with two former White House aides, legal experts said.
The dismissal of the Jones case does not prevent Starr from filing criminal charges against former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky or others. Moreover, the resulting attacks from the White House on Starr’s inquiry are not expected to deter him from presenting to Congress allegations of presidential wrongdoing.
“Starr can probably get around any problem that this decision poses,” said former Deputy Atty. Gen. Philip B. Heymann, now a professor at Harvard Law School.
Still, any case Starr would make against the president would play out not in a court of law but in Congress, where public opinion holds great sway.
“I think this puts a lot of pressure on Starr to wrap this up,” said Harold M. Ickes, the former deputy White House chief of staff who is among a handful of lawyers advising Clinton.
Said another critic of Starr, author and former Los Angeles County prosecutor Vincent P. Bugliosi: “I think psychologically, it’s going to take a little wind out of his sails. Legally, I don’t think it’s going to deter him.”
For his part, Starr issued a terse statement on the dismissal of the Jones lawsuit: “Judge [Susan Webber] Wright’s ruling today has no effect on our authority, and we will continue working to complete the investigation as expeditiously as possible.”
Whether the demise of the Jones lawsuit would affect the fortunes of Starr’s investigation is a matter of great interest because the Lewinsky criminal inquiry is so intrinsically rooted in the civil case.
Starr began investigating the nature of Clinton’s dealings with Lewinsky on Jan. 12, after a friend and co-worker of the former intern, Linda Tripp, called prosecutors and alleged a number of possible crimes.
For instance, Tripp said Lewinsky had acknowledged having oral sex with Clinton but, at the president’s encouragement, signed a sworn statement on Jan. 7 denying any sexual contact.
On Jan. 17, when Clinton denied under oath in a deposition taken by Jones’ lawyers that he ever had sexual relations with either Lewinsky or another former White House aide, Kathleen E. Willey, prosecutors had further grounds to explore whether the president had committed perjury. Willey one week earlier had testified that Clinton had groped her in an encounter just outside the Oval Office.
But can evidence of perjury or other alleged acts of a cover-up remain legally viable, now that the civil lawsuit has been dismissed?
If Starr’s only option was to allege presidential perjury, the answer might be arguable. To prove this offense, a prosecutor must demonstrate that the false statement is “material"--important enough to have influenced, impeded or hampered an inquiry.
However, the materiality standard does not apply to charges of encouraging perjury or obstructing justice. And, in any event, the ultimate jury that would weigh whether Clinton committed perjury or these other offenses is Congress, which has the latitude to define for itself what composes the impeachable offenses of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The question of the viability of the allegations of presidential perjury was first raised on Jan. 29, when Judge Wright ruled that Jones could not use at trial the evidence related to Clinton’s dealings with Lewinsky.
That ruling was seen by some observers as a boon to Starr, whose staff had complained that lawyers for Jones were “shadowing” investigators as they sought to question prospective witnesses.
Defenders of Clinton can be expected to maintain that, because the entire Jones lawsuit has been dismissed, there can be no legitimate basis for alleging that the president should be exposed to perjury charges.
“This should cause Mr. Starr to reconsider the course of his investigation,” said Lanny J. Davis, a former White House special counsel under Clinton. “I hope that he will at least offer a reasonable timetable to conclude his investigation. . . . I believe Mr. Starr will find it difficult to justify continuing a criminal investigation of an alleged false statement in [a case] entirely thrown out of court.”
The Jones ruling “doesn’t help” Starr’s case, said Richard Ben Veniste, former associate Watergate prosecutor and Democratic counsel on the 1996 Senate Whitewater committee.
“There’s a general sense that this whole notion of the investigation regarding sexual allegations was out of proportion and this is a reemphasis of that point,” he said.
Said William Ginsburg, the Los Angeles lawyer who is representing Lewinsky: “If there is no Paula Jones case, then certainly the case against my client is substantially weaker.”
One veteran government lawyer who has been involved with Starr’s investigation sought to distinguish the type of damage dealt the criminal investigation by dismissal of the lawsuit: “Psychologically, politically it’s an important victory for Clinton. It leaves an already impatient electorate with heightened impatience toward Starr.”
Yet from a legal standpoint, this and other criminal-law specialists said, the dismissal of the Jones case is not likely to have an effect on Starr’s pursuit of allegations of perjury, subornation of perjury and obstruction of justice involving Clinton.
“If he lied in that statement [by denying having sexual relations with Lewinsky], Ken Starr can use it,” the lawyer said. It was 11 weeks ago that Starr took the extraordinary step of opening an investigation of the nature of Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky, the former Beverly Hills resident who began her internship in June 1995, and later that year landed a paid job at the White House.
By Jan. 16, Starr won approval for the expanded investigation from Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and a special panel of appellate justices who oversee the independent counsel’s jurisdiction.
Starr, a former solicitor general and U.S. appeals court justice, was appointed independent counsel in August 1994 to investigate matters connected to the Clintons’ role in an Ozarks land development called Whitewater. The venture was launched with financing from a federally insured savings and loan that later failed at a cost to taxpayers of more than $50 million.
Starr’s office in May 1996 won fraud-related convictions against the Clintons’ two Whitewater investment partners, James B. and Susan McDougal. The independent counsel has drawn intense criticism, however, for the duration and broadened scope of his investigation.
Starr decided to reopen an inquiry into the death of former White House lawyer Vincent Foster. His predecessor, Robert B. Fiske Jr., had completed the original investigation of Foster’s death in June 1994. Starr did not conclude his inquiry until mid-1997. Both found that Foster had committed suicide.
On the other hand, Starr was formally asked by Reno to look into two other matters that remain under investigation: the Clinton White House’s obtaining of the FBI background files of scores of prominent Republicans and allegations that senior presidential aides--and perhaps First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton--played a role in the improper firing of the White House travel office staff.
Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.