Impeachment hearings opened Thursday with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr gamely defending his four-year investigation of President Clinton even as his detractors on the House Judiciary Committee insisted that the prosecutor was a “federally paid sex policeman” out to get the president.
In a hearing room heavy with the ghosts of Watergate, the historic session instantly broke into bitter political bickering when Starr, long the president’s chief nemesis, was sworn in as the committee’s primary witness to testify about Clinton’s alleged lying and obstruction of justice during the investigation of his sexual affair with a former White House intern.
Batting away assertions that Clinton’s involvement with Monica S. Lewinsky was a private matter, Starr urged committee members to take his referral and its thousands of pages of accompanying evidence and determine for themselves whether Clinton should surrender his place in history as the 42nd president of the United States.
“The key is that this was no longer lying about a private sexual relationship,” Starr said, alleging that Clinton lied to a federal grand jury and enlisted others to be dishonest in the sexual harassment lawsuit brought against him by Paula Corbin Jones.
“Rather,” warned Starr, “this is the integrity of the judicial process. These are courts we are talking about. These are judges.”
And, he said, “in a variety of ways the president used the powers and influence of the presidency to carry this out.”
Starr, wearing a red-and-gold striped tie and gray suit and sitting on a briefcase, which made him appear taller, was deliberate and methodical in his delivery. He occasionally gestured to committee members with copies of his report, his fingers flipping fast through the pages as he proclaimed: “Herein is the evidence.”
Some 10 hours after the grueling hearing began, Starr’s measured performance gave way to controlled anger under questioning by David E. Kendall, Clinton’s personal lawyer.
Kendall quizzed Starr in depth about his office’s operation, whether it illegally leaked grand jury information to the media and how it investigated and questioned witnesses.
Both seasoned Washington lawyers, the two men at times seemed to be struggling to control their mutual hostility.
At one point, Starr broadly defended his work and that of his staff. “I am confident we have abided by our obligations,” Starr said, jabbing a finger and thumb at Kendall across the room. “I am confident.”
Starr also flared when Kendall suggested that Lewinsky was detained against her will when Starr’s team first confronted her about her involvement with Clinton.
“That is false and you know it to be false,” Starr said, his eyes burning. “She was not held.”
And when Kendall brought up a Time magazine essay by former Lewinsky attorney William Ginsburg, Starr angrily shot back that Ginsburg made himself famous with his contradictory statements. “He was rather fast and loose with the facts,” Starr said.
Starr Never Met Key Witnesses
Starr conceded to Kendall that he has never met many of the key witnesses in the case, including Lewinsky, her mother, Marcia Lewis, presidential aides John Podesta and White House secretary Betty Currie.
Starr also said that of the 115 people who testified before the grand jury, he was present only for Clinton’s appearance. And he said he did not attend any of 19 depositions conducted by his lawyers or any of the 134 FBI interviews.
Asked to explain, Starr said that he delegates much of the work in his office to others.
When all the questioning and testimony finally ended, the course of the impeachment process seemed no less fitful and unclear than at the day’s beginning.
Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.), who more than any other member seemed transfixed by Starr’s performance, wondered where the impeachment process goes now. “Nothing has really changed,” he said. “Nobody is persuaded. Nobody is dissuaded.” Indeed, two committee members asked Starr whether he would prosecute Clinton if the president completes his term and leaves office in 2001. Starr said that he believes such prosecution is possible but declined to say whether he intends to pursue it.
After midnight, the committee voted to issue subpoenas for four additional witnesses: Deputy White House Counsel Bruce Lindsey, Daniel Gecker, Nathan Landow and Robert S. Bennett.
All four will appear for sworn interviews in closed session. It is unclear whether they’ll also appear at hearings. No further meetings of the committee were scheduled today.
Gecker is a Richmond, Va., lawyer who represented Kathleen E. Willey, a former White House volunteer who has said Clinton made an unwelcome sexual advance toward her in 1993.
Starr has been investigating whether Landow, a wealthy Marylander and Democratic fund-raiser, attempted to persuade Willey against raising her allegations.
Bennett was Clinton’s personal lawyer in the Jones case.
Throughout most of the day, Starr gave little ground under intense, sometimes hostile questions from committee Democrats. Yet he did concede, in response to a persistent line of questioning from Democratic Counsel Abbe Lowell, that perhaps he should have informed Atty. Gen. Janet Reno of his previous discussions with Jones’ lawyers when he asked that his investigation be expanded to cover matters related to the Jones case.
“Fault me for my inability to spot the issue,” Starr said.
But, responding to another common criticism of his investigation, Starr denied that his office had improperly leaked grand jury information to the media.
“We do not issue that kind of information,” he said flatly.
He also denied suggestions that the charges against Clinton should be dropped because the Jones case was settled last week.
“That,” Starr said, “is simply and utterly demonstrably wrong as a matter of law.”
He was equally tough when Democrats noted Lewinsky’s testimony to the grand jury that no one had asked her to lie or promised her a job in return for her silence about her affair with Clinton.
Starr Blasted for Omissions
Democrats contend that her statements had cleared Clinton of criminal wrongdoing and blasted Starr for leaving those statements out of his initial referral to Congress.
But Starr said that his staff was not trying to hide anything and that he later did include all of Lewinsky’s testimony in supplemental evidence sent to Congress. “We produced everything,” he said.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) complained that Starr privately cleared Clinton some time ago of wrongdoing in controversies over White House travel office firings and misuse of FBI files by the White House but did not publicly exonerate him until Thursday, weeks after this month’s congressional elections.
Starr countered that he was saying only that his office has found no wrongdoing--so far.
“We still have an investigation underway with respect both to the FBI files and the travel office,” he said. “But as of this time we don’t believe there is any information that would be relative” for seeking criminal charges.
Republicans Seek to Confirm Beliefs
Republicans on the committee sought confirmation of their own beliefs, that Clinton is guilty of perjury and misuse of his authority and that he obstructed justice in trying to hide his gifts to Lewinsky and lying to his aides about the affair.
The committee chairman, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), suggested that Clinton may be no different from federal judges who have been impeached and removed from office for perjury.
“What is the significance of a false statement under oath?” Hyde asked. “Is it essentially different from a garden-variety lie? A mental reservation? A fib? An evasion? A little white lie? Hyperbole?
“In a court proceeding, do you assume some trivial responsibility when you raise your right hand and swear to God to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
“And what of the rule of law--that unique aspect of a free society that protects you from the fire on your roof or the knock on your door at 3 a.m.? What does lying under oath do to the rule of law?”
President Clinton, who was in Japan while Starr was testifying, did not watch any of the live coverage of the hearings, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters.
Clinton saw a short news clip and was briefed on the hearings by advisor Doug Sosnik.
On the news of the exoneration of the president in the travel office, FBI files and aspects of the Whitewater case, Lockhart added: “It’s astonishing that news has been held by the independent counsel for so long and only released to the public this morning.”
No one on the committee defended Clinton’s behavior in the Lewinsky matter. Instead, senior Democrat John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and his colleagues spent most of their time attacking Starr and his investigation.
Conyers dismissed Starr’s report as a “tawdry, salacious and unnecessarily graphic referral.”
“The idea of a federally paid sex policeman spending millions of dollars to trap an unfaithful spouse . . . would have been unthinkable prior to the Starr investigation,” Conyers said.
“Let there be no mistake--it is not now acceptable in America to investigate a person’s private sexual activity.”
Conyers then listed a litany of abuses that he said Starr has committed as he has gathered evidence against Clinton and Lewinsky.
“It is not acceptable to force mothers to testify against their daughters, to make lawyers testify against their clients, to require Secret Service agents to testify against the people they protect or to make bookstores tell what books people read,” he said.
“While an independent counsel can and should pursue a case with vigor, I and many others believe that Mr. Starr has crossed that line into obsession,” Conyers said.
Other Starr critics sought to determine whether he learned of Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky and Linda Tripp’s surreptitiously recorded tapes of their conversations in late 1997--before the matter was brought to Starr’s office in January 1998.
Some conservative attorneys, including a then-law partner of Starr’s, had this information by November 1997.
Under tough questioning by Lowell, Starr defended his tactics but also conceded that he had no evidence that Clinton specifically urged anyone to be dishonest.
“No one explicitly said, ‘You will lie,’ ” Starr said. “Rather, it was, ‘We will continue with our cover stories.’ ”
Starr also defended the conduct of his staff and FBI agents when they first confronted Lewinsky at a hotel in suburban Washington in January. Lewinsky later testified that the prosecutors and agents played hardball, threatened to prosecute her and prevented her from contacting a lawyer and her mother.
But, said Starr, “we made it clear she was not under arrest and she was in fact at liberty to make a decision as to what she wanted to do.”
He noted that Lewinsky eventually did call her mother and a lawyer, went for a walk and had a restaurant meal during the time she was allegedly being hounded by Starr’s office.
But more important, he said, is that Lewinsky already had filed a false affidavit in the Jones case and was preparing not only to commit further perjury in the case but also was encouraging her friend, Tripp, to lie.
To that end, Starr said, Lewinsky’s mother, “was willing to finance” surgery for Tripp to avoid testifying in the Jones case.
But an excited Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) suggested that Starr’s office abused its powers by frightening Lewinsky and other witnesses.
“President Clinton is not above the law and neither are you, Mr. Starr,” Wexler said, his voice pitching high and his arms flailing in the air.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) wanted more time to question Starr, saying she wanted clarification from the independent counsel and suggested that he may have committed perjury in his statements to the committee.
Hyde told her to write Starr a letter asking for clarification of his statements.
The partisan dramatics began from the opening gavel.
Even before Starr began his opening statement, Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) sought to expand the time allocated to the White House to question Starr from 30 minutes to two hours.
But committee Republicans voted down the proposal after Hyde argued that the proceedings were not a “White House versus Starr” trial but an inquiry into the facts. A formal trial, Hyde said, would take place in the Senate if the House votes for articles of impeachment.
“If and when the president should want to testify, he would have unlimited time to do so,” Hyde said.
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) argued that committee Democrats had a different role from the White House in the proceedings, making it unfair to limit White House questioning.
But Republicans, led by Hyde, insisted on a strict timetable--although Hyde used his discretion to extend the allotted time as the hearing proceeded.
And when Democrats received permission to send follow-up written questions to Starr, Hyde said that perhaps they should be forwarded only when Clinton answers the 81 questions sent to him by the committee.
Republicans Applaud, Thank Starr
When he concluded, Starr was given a stirring ovation by Republican members of the committee, some of whom stood to applaud, and Hyde. In addition, many in the audience rose to their feet and clapped.
“Thank you, Judge Starr, for a wonderful day,” Hyde said.
Outside the hearing room, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), the incoming House speaker, said that the handling of the impeachment matter is “a matter for Henry Hyde and the current speaker” to decide. Any attempt to force the issue now, he said, would be “premature.”
Gregory Craig, a White House lawyer, said before the session began that “the process remains bitterly partisan and in our view, unfair to the president.”
Times staff writers Alan C. Miller in Washington and Elizabeth Shogren in Tokyo contributed to this story.
Video excerpts of the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearings are on The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com/scandal
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Starr Defends Call to Impeach in Day of Grueling Testimony
Rep. Maxine Water (D-Los Angeles)
“I have been appalled by what I consider the gross unfairness of the procedure, of the way in which you have conducted yourself.”
Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) Judiciary Committee chairman
“Does the law apply to some people with force and ferocity, while the powerful are immune?”
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.)
“I and many others believe that Mr. Starr has crossed the line into obsession.”
Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.)
“As the day draws longer, the charges become more absurd.”
David E. Kendall (Clinton’s private attorney)
“Let me begin with the simple but powerful truth that nothing in this overkill of investigation amounts to a justification for the impeachment of the president. of the United States.”