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Court Refuses to Probe Starr's Politics : Whitewater: Sen. Levin sought an examination of the independent counsel's GOP activities. Democrats, citing bias issue, step up criticism of prosecutor.


WASHINGTON — A special three-judge court refused Thursday to look into the political activities of independent Whitewater counsel Kenneth W. Starr, saying that it lacked any power to do so.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), leading Senate sponsor of the independent counsel law, urged the court last Friday to ask Starr for "a complete accounting" of his recent Republican political activities and to either ask him to resign or explain why the activities do not impair his "appearance of independence."

The panel two weeks ago appointed Starr, solicitor general during the George Bush Administration, to replace Robert B. Fiske Jr., who had been named by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno seven months ago after an earlier independent counsel law had expired. In turning down Reno's request that it name Fiske under a newly signed law, the court said that it was "in the best interest of the appearance of independence" to choose a person not affiliated with the Clinton Administration.

The court's refusal came as Democrats stepped up their criticism, saying that the selection of Starr violated the same standard that the court had cited in removing Fiske.

Levin, in his letter to Judge David B. Sentelle, who presides over the special panel, cited Starr's role as co-chair of a Republican congressional campaign in Virginia and his participation in a televised debate on the sexual harassment suit brought against Clinton by Paula Corbin Jones, a former Arkansas state employee.

Starr also has come under attack for working on a legal brief for a conservative women's organization that challenges the President's claim of immunity in the Paula Jones suit.

Levin disputed the court order, saying: "Not only do they have such authority, but they alone have the authority."

Starr's appointment also has been criticized because Judge Sentelle had lunch with Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), a leading advocate of removing Fiske, while the special court was weighing who it should name as independent counsel.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a leading supporter of Sentelle when he was named to the bench, joined Faircloth and Sentelle at the lunch. They have denied discussing the appointment.

Starr has rejected Democratic calls for him to step down, noting that his "sole loyalty" is to the Constitution and the laws of the United States.

In turning Levin down, the special court said that the law authorizing the court did not contemplate the accounting from Starr that he sought.

The independent counsel act "simply does not give" the special court "the power to 'supervise' the independent counsel in the exercise of his or her investigative or prosecutorial authority," it said, citing a 1988 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the independent counsel law.

It added that Levin had sought a "supplementary opinion passing on the fitness of an independent counsel already appointed and as to whom the court has no current power of either supervision or termination."

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