Do the Points Merit a Call to Impeach?

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Eight months ago, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr set out to determine whether President Clinton lied under oath about an alleged sexual affair with a former White House intern and encouraged others to lie or "obstruct justice" in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment case.

Starr's findings--a firm and fervent "yes"--caught few people by surprise when they were revealed Friday. In his 445-page report to Congress, Starr all but called the president a serial liar.

His second charge was to determine whether the president's offense calls for removing him from office. Again, the independent counsel answered with a resounding "yes"--ticking off 11 grounds for impeachment.

But on this score, Starr's case seems far less convincing.

While the Constitution says that the chief executive can be impeached for "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors," Starr recounts a low and tawdry tale of sex and lies.

If lying under oath or to the American public qualifies as an impeachable offense, Clinton would be in grave danger of losing the presidency.

Several legal experts said that the alleged crimes detailed in Starr's report could give Congress grounds to remove the president if lawmakers were inclined to do so. But, said Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein, "it would be pushing the envelope a bit."

While Clinton's actions were "not minor," Rothstein said in an interview, "impeachable offenses traditionally have been things that affect the ability of the government to function or attempts by the president to interfere with the constitutional functions of government."

The independent counsel concluded that Clinton told a string of lies, beginning with his claim under oath that he could not recall ever being alone with Monica S. Lewinsky, despite sharing at least 10 "sexual encounters" with her in or near the Oval Office.

After the scandal became public in January, Starr reported, Clinton lied to aides so they would testify falsely before the grand jury, and he lied to the American people to avoid public humiliation.

Appearing before the grand jury Aug. 17, Clinton again wiggled away from the truth, Starr said. And Clinton tried to cover up the initial lies by trying to get Lewinsky an out-of-town job and by telling his secretary to hide gifts that he had given the former intern, according to the report.

But legal historians said that Congress was given the impeachment power only to remove high officials who had engaged in corruption or grossly abused their power. This was the case in the early 1970s when President Nixon used the power of his office to thwart an FBI investigation of the Watergate scandal.

However, the lurid details in the Starr report could drive Clinton out of office, said George Washington University law professor Steven Saltzburg, a former associate independent counsel.

"The facts are devastating. This is probably the most embarrassing report ever released on an American president," Saltzburg said.

Clinton's lawyers argued Friday that Starr's report is a "one-sided" account that was meant to harm the president politically by delving unnecessarily into detailed accounts of the president's sexual relationship with Lewinsky.

"The president has acknowledged his personal wrongdoing and sought forgiveness from his family, Ms. Lewinsky, the Cabinet, the Congress and the country," said David E. Kendall, Clinton's private attorney. "In light of that acknowledgment, the salacious allegations in this referral are simply intended to humiliate, embarrass and politically damage the president."

"In short, this is personal and not impeachable."

Starr's report appears strongest in detailing Clinton's false and misleading statements in the Jones case.

Having sworn to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God," Clinton lied on major points and minor ones during his Jan. 17 deposition, according to Starr's report.

For example, when asked whether he had talked with Lewinsky about her sworn statement denying a sexual relationship, Clinton said: "I'm not sure."

In fact, the president had spoken with her three times in the month before, including a Sunday morning meeting in the Oval Office two weeks before his testimony, the report says.

The report appears weaker in claiming that the president "obstructed justice" and "abused his constitutional authority" by, among other things, refusing to testify for seven months before the grand jury.

In his report, Starr concluded that Clinton's "refusals [to testify sooner] substantially delayed this office's investigation."

In no other instance would a defendant's refusal to appear before a grand jury be charged as an obstruction of justice, legal experts said. Starr, however, cites it as the basis for one of his 11 impeachment counts.

Here is a look at the highlights of the grounds for impeachment as cited in the report:

PERJURY

The report contrasts Clinton's denials of sexual relations in his Jones civil case deposition with Lewinsky's graphic descriptions of their encounters in her grand jury testimony, given under a grant of complete immunity from prosecution.

Starr said that he submitted details of 10 alleged episodes of "substantial sexual activity" in or near the Oval Office to demonstrate Clinton's perjured testimony in both the civil case and his Aug. 17 grand jury testimony.

According to the report, Clinton flatly denied sexual relations with the former White House intern on grounds that the two never engaged in sexual intercourse. But Starr said Clinton chose to ignore a definition of sexual relations that included genital contact or his touching of Lewinsky's exposed breasts.

The president's alleged grand jury perjury partly involved his continued insistence that his civil case testimony in January had been "legally accurate." In fact, according to the report, "there is substantial and credible information that the president's lies about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky were abundant and calculating."

The report relates at least nine instances when, despite the president's sworn denials of a sexual relationship, Lewinsky performed oral sex on him, as well as instances when Clinton "touched and kissed Ms. Lewinsky's bare breasts . . . and directly stimulated her genitalia--acts clearly within the definition of 'sexual relations' used at the Jones deposition."

Starr's report also alleges perjury by Clinton in his civil case deposition when the president was asked about gifts he exchanged with Lewinsky. Although Clinton said "I don't recall" any gifts, the report says that three weeks before his deposition the president gave the former intern "a number of gifts, the largest number he had ever given her."

Kendall, the president's lawyer, disputed key points in Starr's report, including allegations that Clinton had lied. Asked how Lewinsky had described a number of specific sexual encounters that involved sex by most people's definition, while Clinton denied it, Kendall responded that "people's recollections differ--it does not necessarily mean that one is lying."

OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE

The report alleges that Clinton improperly sought to influence Lewinsky's testimony in the civil case by suggesting a false reason she could give for her frequent White House visits, should they become known.

Lewinsky told grand jurors that Clinton told her last December: "You know, you can always say you were coming to see Betty [Currie, the president's personal secretary] or that you were bringing me letters."

Because she had been subpoenaed for questioning by Jones' lawyers last year and asked to turn over any gifts from the president, Lewinsky said she asked Clinton "if she should put the gifts away somewhere," the report says.

She testified that the president responded, "I don't know" or "Let me think about it." But the report says that a short time later, Currie telephoned Lewinsky to say, "I understand you have something for me" and subsequently stopped by Lewinsky's Watergate apartment to pick up the gifts.

Clinton denied in his grand jury testimony that he had asked Currie to pick up the gifts.

In the same manner, Starr's report charges that the president "endeavored to obstruct justice by helping Ms. Lewinsky obtain a job in New York at a time when she would have been a witness against him were she to tell the truth during the Jones case."

Starr's report also charges that Clinton sought to influence Currie's eventual testimony by making suggestions to her last Jan. 18--a day after Clinton's testimony in the Jones case--after summoning her to the White House.

However, Clinton explained that conversation to the grand jury by saying, "I was trying to get the facts down. I was trying to understand what the facts were."

Kendall denied allegations of obstruction or witness tampering in Starr's report, telling reporters, "Ms. Currie was not a witness in the Paula Jones lawsuit. She was not on any witness list, nor was she, in fact, ever called as a witness."

ABUSE OF OFFICE

The report charges that Clinton should risk impeachment because his actions over the last seven months "have been inconsistent with the president's constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws."

According to the report, Clinton "misled the American people and the Congress in his public statement of Jan. 26, 1998, in which he denied sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky" and made similar denials to his Cabinet and senior aides.

Subsequently, "the president repeatedly and unlawfully invoked executive privilege to conceal evidence of his personal misconduct from the grand jury" with a series of federal court challenges, the report alleges.

However, Kendall told reporters that such alleged abuses cited by Starr "are nothing more than an assertion of constitutionally protected rights."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Starr's Allegations

Kenneth W. Starr's report contained "substantial and credible information" supporting 11 counts of possible impeachment of President Clinton. Starr concluded that the president:

1. Lied under oath in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case when he denied having sexual relations with Monica S. Lewinsky.

2. Lied under oath to a federal grand jury about having sexual relations with Lewinsky.

3. Lied under oath in civil deposition in Jones case about being alone with Lewinsky and the many gifts they exchanged.

4. Lied under oath in civil deposition about his discussions with Lewinsky concerning her involvement in the Jones case.

5. Obstructed justice during the Jones case and had an understanding with Lewinsky to jointly conceal the truth by concealing gifts subpoenaed by Jones' attorneys.

6. Obstructed justice during the Jones case by agreeing with Lewinsky to lie about their sexual relationship.

7. Endeavored to obstruct justice by helping Lewinsky obtain a job in New York.

8. Lied under oath in civil deposition about his discussions with close friend Vernon E. Jordan, Jr.

9. Improperly tampered with a potential witness by attempting to corruptly influence the testimony of his personal secretary, Betty Currie.

10. Endeavored to obstruct justice during the grand jury investigation by refusing to testify for seven months and lying to senior White House aides.

11. Abused his constitutional authority by lying to the public and the Congress about his relationship with Lewinsky.

Source: Independent Counsel's office

researched by TRICIA FORD / Los Angeles Times

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