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House Democrats Push for an Investigation of Starr’s Office

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Congressional Democrats urged Atty. Gen. Janet Reno on Wednesday to move quickly in investigating new allegations that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s office misled her about the genesis of the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation.

Newly disclosed records show that, when Starr sought to secure approval from Reno in January 1998 to look into the Lewinsky matter, his prosecutors told Reno’s aides that they had “no contacts” with the legal team of Paula Corbin Jones, who had filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton.

But, in fact, the independent counsel’s office has acknowledged that just days earlier an attorney working closely with the Jones camp had contacted a Starr prosecutor about Clinton’s involvement with a White House intern. Starr’s attorneys said that was when they first learned of allegations that Clinton had encouraged the intern to lie about their affair.

While Starr’s critics have accused him of failing to reveal possible conflicts in his investigation, the new disclosures represent the first indication that his prosecutors may have misled authorities actively when they sought to expand their inquiry.

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Officials in Starr’s office steadfastly have denied any collusion with lawyers for Jones, whose suit triggered the perjury and obstruction case that led to Clinton’s impeachment.

But Democrats said Wednesday that the discrepancy bolsters their claims that Starr had a clear conflict of interest in investigating the Lewinsky affair because of undisclosed contacts with the Jones camp, both before and after he became independent counsel.

Julian Epstein, Democratic chief counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, said he believes that the discussions between the Starr and Jones camps should have been disclosed to Reno when she was considering authorizing an expanded investigation into the Lewinsky allegations.

“Had these contacts been properly discussed,” said Epstein, “there might not have even been authorization for the expansion of Starr’s investigation. When you have an appearance of a conflict, you have to let the attorney general make that determination.”

Aides to Reno would not comment Wednesday.

According to a report in today’s editions of the Washington Post, the Justice Department has sent Starr’s office a letter saying that it is considering investigating whether the independent counsel’s prosecutors misled Reno about potential conflicts of interest in their dealings with Jones’ attorneys and in their initial discussions of immunity with Lewinsky.

Starr’s office did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

But Democrats were quick to pounce on the initial reports, renewing their charges that Starr has conducted what has amounted to a biased investigation.

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Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a strong Clinton defender, charged that Starr had “set up” Clinton after collaborating with Jones’ lawyers. He called it “a classic sting operation.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said: “There are a number of questions . . . that need to be settled once and for all.”

Abbe Lowell, who was the Democrats’ House Judiciary Committee counsel during the impeachment proceedings, said: “This impeachment stands on Ken Starr’s shoulders, and if there’s something weak about those shoulders, it’s important that history understands that.”

Central to the question of whether Starr’s office misled Reno are handwritten notes of a Jan. 15, 1998, meeting between the independent counsel’s office and the Justice Department.

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At the meeting, Starr’s prosecutors outlined the fast-breaking developments in the case over the previous several days, including their conversations with Linda Tripp about tape-recordings she had made of her telephone conversations with Lewinsky. And they made their case for expanding their inquiry to include possible evidence of perjury and obstruction of justice against Clinton.

Notes that were taken separately at the meeting by at least three participants and were later turned over to House investigators show that Starr’s lawyers told Reno’s aides that they had had “no contact” with Jones’ attorneys.

Top Starr deputy Jackie Bennett told Justice Department officials that the independent counsel’s office was “concerned about appearances,” according to a handwritten note by a Starr aide.

The notes contained no mention of at least one conversation earlier in the month about the Tripp-Lewinsky matter between a Starr prosecutor and Jerome M. Marcus, a Philadelphia lawyer who had done extensive legal work for the Jones legal team. A Starr spokesman has said that the conversation was viewed by the independent counsel’s office as “a general heads-up” and told Marcus that the information would have to be brought to them directly through official channels.

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A few days after that conversation, Starr was apprised of the perjury and obstruction allegations, leading to the Jan. 15 meeting with Reno’s aides to explore an expanded investigation.

Ten months later, Starr told the House Judiciary Committee: “The attorney general made her decision knowing the information that we had.”


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