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Judges’ Ruling Allows Reno to Pursue Starr Inquiry

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In a ruling acknowledging the limits of its power, a federal court panel on Thursday cleared the way for Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to investigate allegations of misconduct by the office of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

The three appellate court judges, who appointed Starr in 1994, said they have no authority to order Reno to end her inquiry, as a conservative legal foundation had sought last month.

The decision leaves the Justice Department’s public integrity section free to continue its inquiry into whether Starr’s office improperly leaked sensitive information about its grand jury investigation of President Clinton’s affair with a former White House intern. It also is investigating whether Starr’s prosecutors improperly sought to negotiate an immunity deal early last year with the intern, Monica S. Lewinsky, without her lawyer present.

Justice officials also are troubled by indications that Starr aides may have misled them and failed to reveal a potential conflict of interest when, as they sought authority to investigate the Lewinsky matter, they denied receiving information about it from the legal team of Paula Corbin Jones, who had filed a sexual harassment suit against Clinton.

Starr’s office had insisted that all its actions were legal and proper. But last week the independent counsel asked the Justice Department to investigate an alleged press leak by his spokesman, Charles G. Bakaly III. Bakaly resigned his position.

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A Justice Department spokesman said Thursday that Reno was gratified by the court ruling, but he refused to discuss the status of the investigation. Starr’s office said that it “fully accepts the court’s resolution of this issue.”

Sources familiar with the case have said that Reno may agree to a demand by Starr that an outside authority, such as a retired federal judge, be placed in charge of the inquiry. However, Reno has defended her right to pursue a Justice Department investigation.

In their order, the judges said that they agreed with legal briefs filed by Reno and Starr in which both officials, for different reasons, declared that the court had no authority in the matter. The judges took no position on the merits of Reno’s investigation.

In her filing, Reno bluntly rejected a challenge to her authority, telling the judges that they have no power under federal law to stop her from investigating Starr’s office. She contended that because the Independent Counsel Act allows her to fire an independent counsel “for good cause,” Congress clearly gave her the right to investigate such counsels.

Starr, in his own court papers, said that the Washington-based Landmark Legal Foundation, which asked the court to intervene on Starr’s behalf, had no legal right to make such a request.

The court agreed with both arguments.

Mark Levin, Landmark president and onetime chief of staff to former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, was philosophical about the court’s dismissal of his organization’s petition.

“Landmark’s primary goal was to make public an issue that the Justice Department never wanted to see the light of day,” Levin said.

In another action related to Starr’s office, the Senate on Thursday rejected a Democratic-sponsored proposal to turn his investigation over to the Justice Department after the Independent Counsel Act expires on June 30.

Most members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is conducting hearings on the law, have said that they are leaning toward reauthorizing the act with major changes, including stringent new controls on the length of such investigations, funding for them and the scope of a counsel’s authority.


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