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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Foes Say Starr Has Gone Beyond Pale in Pursuing Clinton

Probe: Extensive mandate should not be stretched to include sex matters in the White House, president's defenders contend.

January 23, 1998|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Critics of the Whitewater probe have been many and loud here in recent months, as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation passed the four-year, $30-million mark without bringing criminal charges against President Clinton, his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, or his top aides.

For the White House, the independent counsel had become the permanent prosecutor, hovering nearby, always ready to strike.

This week's stunning news that Starr had struck again, this time pursuing charges growing out of allegations of sexual misconduct, renewed complaints among administration supporters that the independent counsel had gone beyond the pale.

"This shows if you can keep yourself in business for five years, you can find something to go after," said Stanley M. Brand, a defense lawyer and former Democratic House counsel. "As a legal matter, I question his right to go into anything like this."

Starr's commission from a three-judge panel was to investigate whether crimes had been committed involving the Clintons' finances in Little Rock, Ark., and other "related matters."

This broad mandate cannot be stretched to include sex matters in the White House, the critics insisted.

Former Iran-Contra prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh was among those voicing discomfort about the latest turn in the Whitewater probe.

Prosecutors "should stay out of intensely personal matters," Walsh said, and focus on "official business," he said in a CNN interview.

Other Clinton defenders also question Starr's use of a secret tape-recording to hear former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky's comments about the president.

"We should think long and hard before we have sting operations against a sitting president," said the president's lawyer, Robert S. Bennett.

However, as even Starr's critics concede, neither the broad reach of the probe nor its use of secret recordings likely will help Clinton much if prosecutors show he lied under oath or urged others to do so.

Secretly recording Lewinsky's comments "is unseemingly, but it's not unconstitutional," Brand said. "It goes on every day."

Starr and his staff also have ready answers for the complaints lodged against them. They say their initial probe allowed them to pursue matters that arose during the course of their investigation.

In recounting the recent developments, it has been stressed that Linda Tripp, the former White House aide who taped conversations with Lewinsky, came to Starr's office with the information. This differs from a situation in which the prosecutor had been snooping around for stories of women who claimed to have sexual relationships with the president.

In a brief press conference Thursday, Starr also noted that he had followed the procedures set forth in the law. He contacted Atty. Gen. Janet Reno seeking an expansion of his probe. She in turn recommended the expansion to the three-judge panel, which granted the request.

"Our job is to gather facts and to evaluate facts and to get at the truth," Starr said outside his office. "I have a very strong belief that the facts will come out and the truth will come out eventually."

In 1981, Starr came to Washington as a young lawyer working for Ronald Reagan's attorney general, William French Smith. He rose quickly as a trusted confidant and won an appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

When Reagan left office, President Bush appointed him as U.S. solicitor general, the government's advocate before the Supreme Court. He was seen as a likely appointee to the high court in a future Republican administration.

But his appointment to the high-profile post of independent counsel probably has ended his chances for elevation to the high court, regardless of how his probe ends.

His reputation has been tarnished, first by the prolonged probe, by continuing to represent corporate clients while serving as special prosecutor, his speaking at conservative forums and then by a start-stop announcement involving Pepperdine University. Starr first announced he was leaving his independent counsel post to become the dean of the Pepperdine law school, and then reversed himself a week later.

Even his critics concede that the final judgment on his probe will depend, not on the procedural niceties, but on the outcome involving Clinton.

"People won't focus on Ken Starr now, but whether he proves to have been right in the end about these charges," Brand said.

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