Starr Testimony Spurs Ethics Advisor to Quit


Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee prepared Friday to gather additional testimony for impeachment hearings as their first witness was hit by mutiny in his own camp.

Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr testified for 12 hours Thursday but on Friday his ethics advisor resigned because he disagreed with Starr’s performance.

Sam Dash, the widely respected Senate counsel from Watergate hearings a generation ago, told Starr that he had acted improperly as an advocate for impeaching President Clinton.


In a letter, Dash added that “you have seriously harmed the public confidence in the independence and objectivity of your office.”

But Starr and Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) defended the historic testimony, with Hyde saying that the committee would have subpoenaed Starr if he had not testified voluntarily.

On Capitol Hill, GOP committee members began lining up depositions early next week for new witnesses and said that Thursday’s marathon hearing had increased their enthusiasm for impeachment.

Rep. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), for instance, said Starr did not prove Clinton committed perjury in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment case. But Graham, nevertheless, remained deeply troubled about evidence the president lied to a federal grand jury after swearing to tell the truth last August.

“If the facts don’t change, it is the most overwhelming case for grand jury perjury I’ve ever seen in my life,” Graham said. “I cannot in good conscience walk away from that.”

In resigning, Dash said he had warned Starr strongly against appearing before the committee or otherwise going beyond his referral to Congress and the accompanying evidence to offer his opinions.

Dash maintained that the Constitution is strict in giving only the House the power to impeach a president. The Constitution, he added, does not permit an independent counsel to go beyond providing information and evidence for the impeachment process.

“The House has the sole power of impeachment,” Dash wrote Starr. “As an executive branch independent prosecutor, you may not intrude on that sole power, even if invited by the committee.”

Starr praised Dash and thanked him for his services. “Sam Dash is a man of total principle,” he told reporters. “I love Sam. I respect him. I admire him.”

But Starr said that he passed over Dash’s advice because “my view is I had an invitation to explain . . . what was in the referral.”

“The other thing I would say in this respect is that we really are, as I tried to say yesterday, in uncharted waters,” Starr said. “This is the first time, unhappily for the country, that under the independent counsel law a referral has been made to Congress.”

Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York University Law School, said he found the Dash letter “entirely bewildering” because Starr did not really waver in his testimony from his written report to the committee.

He added that the statute calls for the independent counsel to advise the House but that “it doesn’t say advise the House [only] in writing.”

“If anything,” Gillers said of Starr, “his performance yesterday was subdued.”

Hyde said the panel would have heard from Starr one way or the other.

“If he had not agreed to testify at our request, we would have been compelled to subpoena him,” Hyde said. “Starr complied with the law and provided valuable clarification to the committee as it searches for the facts.”

Hyde also set schedules for the investigative staffs of both sides of the committee to begin taking depositions from four subpoenaed witnesses.

On Monday, investigators will depose Daniel Gecker, a Richmond, Va., lawyer who has represented Kathleen Willey, a former White House employee who has claimed that Clinton made an unwanted sexual advance toward her in an encounter near the Oval Office.

On Tuesday, a deposition will be taken from Nathan Landow, an affluent Maryland fund-raiser for Democratic candidates. Starr is investigating whether Landow tried to persuade Willey not to speak ill of the president.

Neither Gecker nor Landow could be reached for comment Friday.

A week later, committee staff members plan to depose Robert S. Bennett, the president’s personal lawyer in the Jones case, and Deputy White House Counsel Bruce Lindsey.

Bennett said the committee considers “nothing off limits.”

“They are disregarding the wishes of the American people and don’t care that we are being laughed at by the rest of the world,” he complained.

Lindsey could not be reached for comment.

Jim Kennedy, a spokesman in the White House counsel’s office, said it “seems quite extraordinary” for the committee to be subpoenaing the president’s lawyers.

“That is something every American should be concerned about, since all of us at times in our lives have conversations with private attorneys,” he said.

Kennedy added that how much the two lawyers might say is being hashed out.

“We’ve heard so many different stories about different witnesses,” Kennedy said. “We’re certainly not sure from one day to the next about what [the committee’s] intentions are or where they’re going to take this thing.

“So we’ll make our decisions once we have a chance to see what’s really going on.”

Republicans remained committed to finishing the inquiry by year’s end.

“It’s going to test the mettle of our staff,” said Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.). “We can’t do everything we want to do.”

But committee Democrats seemed unmoved by Starr’s performance Thursday.

“Sam Dash’s criticism of Ken Starr’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee is right on target,” said Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), a stern critic of the independent counsel. “Ken Starr’s willingness to make a case for impeachment just reinforces the concerns many of us have had about his judgment.”

Starr’s testimony seemed to boost his flagging ratings in overnight polls, but the public remained deeply skeptical of his case against the president.

Starr’s favorability rating in a CNN/Gallop/USA Today poll conducted Thursday evening rose to 40% among those who viewed his testimony from just 26% of respondents three months ago. But Starr’s unfavorability rating remained around 55%.

Among those who watched the hearing, 40% approved of Starr’s handling of the charges against Clinton, while 58% disapproved.

A CBS News poll similarly found that 48% of those surveyed had an unfavorable view of Starr--both before and after his testimony. Starr’s favorability rating rose to 26% from 18%.

Times staff writers Janet Hook and David Savage contributed to this story.

A video excerpt of Kenneth W. Starr’s statement about Sam Dash’s resignation is on The Times’ Web site: