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Starr to 'Build Upon' Fiske Probe : Investigation: New Whitewater counsel rejects demands that he step aside. Clinton's lawyers seek delay or dismissal of harassment suit.

August 11, 1994|RONALD J. OSTROW and JOHN M. BRODER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Turning aside Democratic demands that he step down as the newly appointed Whitewater independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr said Wednesday that he plans to render an "independent judgment" on all matters covered by the wide-ranging investigation.

Starr said he will "build upon" the investigation done by his predecessor, Robert B. Fiske Jr., but pointedly refused to say that he would accept Fiske's conclusions on parts of the inquiry already completed.

"I accept this assignment with a firm commitment to fairness, thoroughness, dispatch and professionalism," Starr said in a written statement, issued a day after he met in Little Rock, Ark., with Fiske, the outside prosecutor named by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and then replaced in a surprise move by a special panel of judges.

Also Wednesday, President Clinton's lawyers filed a motion in federal court in Little Rock, seeking the dismissal or delay of the sexual-harassment suit brought in May by former Arkansas state employee Paula Corbin Jones.

In documents supporting the motion, Clinton's chief private attorney, Robert S. Bennett, declared that a sitting President must be immune from civil damage suits because they would impair his ability to carry out the unique responsibilities of the office.

He argued that Jones can refile her suit after Clinton leaves office without suffering any legal or financial harm.

"To allow such a suit to go forward will establish a novel and dangerous precedent that will do great damage to the institution of the presidency and will enable those seeking to promote personal or political agendas to place their own selfish interests above those of the American people," Bennett said in a statement accompanying the legal motion.

In the legal papers submitted to U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, Bennett said Jones' suit is motivated by political animosity toward Clinton and hope for financial gain. He said proceedings involving Clinton's co-defendant, Arkansas state trooper Danny Ferguson, also should be delayed until Clinton leaves office because Ferguson's trial would necessarily involve time-consuming testimony by the President.

But Bennett said that by claiming temporary immunity, he was not arguing that Clinton or any other President is not subject to the rule of law, "but only that a particular remedy--money damages--is not immediately available to the plaintiff."

Bennett also said the burden of responding to suits like Jones'--and the others it might inspire--would be intolerable. "To understand what a disruption such suits could be, one need only imagine a President spending days in deposition, weeks in pretrial preparation with lawyers and weeks at trial, while the urgent business of the nation--foreign, domestic, civilian and military--awaited the chief executive's attention."

Joseph L. Cammarata, one of Jones' attorneys, assailed the immunity argument as "an unprecedented claim by Mr. Clinton to place himself above the law for his private acts under the guise of protecting the office of President."

He called it a "desperate attempt" to avoid dealing with the merits of the case and to delay any airing of the facts until after he has left office.

Jones' attorneys have 11 days to answer Clinton's immunity argument, although it is expected that they will be granted an extension to prepare their response.

At the Justice Department, where a brief on the question of presidential immunity is being prepared by Solicitor General Drew S. Days III and his staff, chief spokesman Carl Stern said a decision on whether and what to file with the court will be made in the next several days.

"If the judgment is made that this is the kind of question in which the government has historically presented its view, we probably would file without an invitation" by the judge to do so, Stern said.

Stern would not discuss any details of the government's likely position, but it is understood to concur that the President must be allowed at least temporary relief from facing civil suits while in office.

Starr issued a one-page statement about his plans for the Whitewater inquiry following four hours of meetings in Little Rock with Fiske and his top aides.

Starr said he had told members of Fiske's staff that he hoped many of them would stay on. "I am keenly aware of the considerable knowledge they have developed over recent months about these matters," the statement said.

Conservative Republican critics had called for the replacement of Fiske, questioning the thoroughness and impartiality of his investigation. They particularly objected to his conclusion that Treasury Department officials had not violated the law by briefing the White House on a federal investigation of Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, an Arkansas thrift that figures prominently in the Whitewater controversy.

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