Learning Curve Hits Learned Counsel

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In a cynical city of deals and double-deals, Kenneth W. Starr might just be the last befuddled innocent.

The independent counsel says that he prays before every courtroom appearance, sings hymns on morning jogs near the Potomac and thinks about Atticus Finch, the heroic defense attorney of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Starr says that he hasn't leaked any improper information to reporters and he trusts that his assistants haven't, either.

But he trusted a reporter--Steven Brill, the editor of a new magazine called Brill's Content--and that has landed him in trouble.

To his adversaries, Starr is a right-wing zealot and a hypocrite--"out to get the president at any cost and any means justify the end," former White House aide Harold M. Ickes charged.

To his friends, Starr is a fine boardroom lawyer who is sorely out of his element in a high-stakes political battle--and unequipped to handle even the likes of Brill. "I was floored," one Starr friend, Democratic lawyer Terrence B. Adamson, said of the independent counsel's decision to talk with the magazine editor. "That's like asking for it."

To Washington's continuing bewilderment, the real Starr may be a bit of both models: zealous and naive, a little bit self-righteous and a good bit clumsy.

In an independent counsel, it is an explosive mixture: a man seemingly convinced of his own probity, handed a broad mandate to investigate the alleged sins of a president--and certain that if he could only explain himself fully, the public would understand.

"You cannot defile the temple of justice," he told reporters on his front lawn in suburban Virginia in April. "You will never hear me besmirching anyone's reputation. Not once. Never in all of this four years of activity have I ever said anything to besmirch anyone's reputation."

The independent counsel was defending himself again Tuesday, issuing a 19-page letter that flatly denied any leakage of information about grand jury witnesses from anyone on his staff.

"We have not disclosed this information to the media and [the] claim that I have admitted doing so is false," Starr wrote, adding that Brill's article was "reckless and irresponsible" and "borders on the libelous."

David E. Kendall, President Clinton's private lawyer, did not buy it. "You are now attempting to justify leaking by you and your office by claiming that the information . . . is not covered" by grand jury secrecy rules, he wrote. "The actions of your office are in violation of the law."

At the core of the controversy is not the question of whether Starr ever talked to reporters. He has done so in public and, as he acknowledged to Brill, in private as well.

"Providing background [briefings] is something that prosecutors have done for a long time," said Adamson, who served in the Justice Department under President Carter.

The real question is whether Starr or his prosecutors gave reporters information about the evidence his investigators were gathering from witnesses. His office is trying to determine whether Clinton lied under oath about an alleged sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

In his article, Brill charged that much of the information that made its way into the media in the first few weeks of the scandal came directly from Starr's office.

Starr has repeatedly denied that and his long letter Tuesday specifically denied leaking a list of stories that Brill ascribed to his office. He also quoted reporters for NBC, Newsweek and the Washington Post calling Brill's article inaccurate about their stories.

And he went on the attack, charging that the White House may have leaked information and then blamed the leaks on his office.

"It takes little imagination to divine that the strategies of gathering and leaking incriminating information could be used to maximum advantage . . . particularly if the leaks were blamed falsely on the [independent counsel]," he wrote.

It was a characteristic response. In four years of public statements and increasingly bitter battles, the public Starr has always been certain of his mission, confident of his staff--and thin-skinned about any questioning of their conduct.

In April, he was asked why he continued to investigate the possibility of perjury or other crimes in the Lewinsky matter, despite the dismissal of Paula Corbin Jones' sexual misconduct suit against the president, the litigation that spawned the investigative firestorm.

"It is very important that the law and the legal process have complete integrity and that people be honest," Starr explained.

"There's no room for white lies. There's no room for shading. There's only room for truth. . . . You cannot defile the temple of justice. You cannot, through--and I hope it was not done--subornation of perjury, intimidation of witnesses and obstruction of justice. Rather, you must play by the rules. We all must play by the rules. . . .

"For the sake of the nation, we hope for the best. But our job is to determine whether crimes were committed," he said.

And in a little-noticed speech in Texas last month, Starr explained why he considers lies under oath--on any subject--to be intolerable. "The point of criminalizing false statements and perjury in the first place is that lies and half-truths corrode our system of justice," he said. "If we look the other way, as citizens and as lawyers, then we allow our weightiest disputes to be resolved on skewed information--and the full story never gets told."

That single-minded vision of his mandate--to pursue charges of mendacity in high places--appears to be what keeps Starr moving grimly forward on the Lewinsky investigation.

But what makes the prosecutor angry are attacks on his staff, including his chief deputy in Washington, Jackie M. Bennett Jr.--whom he told Brill was his principal go-between with reporters during the first 10 weeks of the Lewinsky inquiry.

Starr has complained bitterly about what he calls "an avalanche of lies" from Clinton defenders against his aides.

In response to such attacks, he also subpoenaed White House aides, including Sidney D. Blumenthal, who had been urging reporters to look into connections between Starr and right-wing groups.

That, in turn, has given Clinton supporters another angle of attack. "Anyone who criticizes him is subject to criminal prosecution," Ickes thundered. "That is scary when you're dealing with someone who is bent on running Bill Clinton out of town. . . . This is what the Supreme Court calls the chilling effect.

"Threatening criminal sanctions for working with the press is an abuse of power and Ken Starr should have the honor to resign," Ickes added, sounding not very chilled.

Starr's sense of injury over such attacks may have been one reason that he made the ill-advised decision to talk with Brill, one lawyer said.

The independent counsel told Brill that, when he talked with reporters, he was merely "countering misinformation that is being spread about our investigation in order to discredit our office and our dedicated career prosecutors."

When Brill visited the independent counsel's office on April 15, it was supposed to be merely a "courtesy call," Starr aide Charles G. Bakaly III said.

But after several minutes of pleasantries, Brill took out a notebook and began taking notes. The ensuing conversation lasted about 90 minutes. Starr never attempted to cut it short, Bakaly said.

Starr's friends were aghast. One chalked up the blunder to the prosecutor's "political tone-deafness." But another said that it was arrogance. "Once you're an appellate judge [as Starr was at age 37], you think you walk on air," he said sadly.

Even Brill tends toward the more charitable explanation. In his article, he called Starr an "old-world straight arrow . . . the opposite of slick."

Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.

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