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He's Not Obsessed With Lewinsky--Yet

Attorney hired by House panel to scrutinize Starr's anticipated report on impeachment evidence tries to ignore the hoopla.

July 23, 1998|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When Monica S. Lewinsky takes a dip in the Watergate pool, workers in the adjacent office complex go to the windows to watch. It seems many locals can't get enough of the former White House intern--whether it's seeing her in a purple one-piece or following the legal arguments surrounding the case in which she is ensnarled.

But one Washingtonian claims to be trying to ignore it all--at least for now.

Attorney David P. Schippers says he doesn't read or listen to the crush of news stories speculating on whether Lewinsky and Clinton had a sexual relationship and then lied about it--questions that have obsessed the nation's capital. And when Schippers passes the massive media encampment outside the federal courthouse where independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury is probing these matters, he does not stop for a peek.

But depending on the strength of the evidence Starr develops, the veteran Chicago lawyer may be forced to become the biggest Monica junkie of them all. He is the new chief investigative counsel of the House Judiciary Committee, hired by Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) to give Starr's handiwork--a widely anticipated report on "substantial and credible" evidence of impeachable offenses--its first legal review.

What makes Schippers' situation so surprising is his political affiliation. A lifelong Democrat who voted for Clinton twice, he could be called upon to build an impeachment case against the man he helped elect.

Just a few months on the job, Schippers, 68, is busying himself with other matters, including a top-to-bottom review of the Justice Department. But Schippers knew when Hyde hired him that he might have to cut that project short. And despite trying to ignore what everyone else in Washington is talking about, Schippers sometimes cannot help catching the same bug.

"Every once in a while it hits you," Schippers said of his role in what could explode into historic political drama. "It really hit me when I took my wife to the Jefferson Memorial. If you stand at Mr. Jefferson's feet and you look where he's looking, you see right into the Oval Office. It kind of hit me right then. I thought, 'Oh, God. I pray that it doesn't happen.' "

If it does, Schippers will have plenty of lawyers to turn to for advice and help.

He has brought with him from Chicago a high-powered legal team that includes former federal prosecutors, federal agents and an ex-police officer.

House Democrats, led on the Judiciary Committee by Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, will have a separate legal staff in place to scrutinize Starr's report.

Schippers, former head of the Justice Department's organized crime task force, insists he does not relish what most lawyers would consider the case of a lifetime.

As a federal prosecutor, he jailed reputed mob boss Sam Giancana. As a defense attorney, he took on a racially charged case in Birmingham, Ala., and won freedom for three police officers accused of beating a black motorist. Over the years, he has had his legal tactics picked apart in the press and been called a devil for the unpopular clients he occasionally represented. Just the same, in Chicago legal circles, he is somewhat of a legend--a nice guy but one you wouldn't want coming after you in court.

"I can be tough. I'm not blowing my own horn, but that is pretty much the word: 'Don't let Schippers get at you.' I remember my daughter coming home from court when she was 17, and she said to my wife, 'My God, Dad is different when he's in court.' "

Past counsels in high-profile congressional investigations have had their faces broadcast across America and subsequently seen their careers soar. Schippers says he has no plans to cash in.

"If it happens"--Schippers continues to have an open mind on whether Starr will deliver any report at all--"I don't want to be a household name."

"I will do the job, I will fold my tent and go back to Chicago and pick up where I left off. If somebody comes to me and says, 'Do you want to run for office? Would you like to write a book?' Absolutely not. I have no desire for any of that. I think it would be obscene to gain notoriety from the agony of your country."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Profile: David P. Schippers

Age: 68

Education: Bachelor and law degrees from Loyola University of Chicago.

Current position: Chief investigative counsel, House Judiciary Committee.

Previous positions: Former chief of the Justice Department's Organized Crime and Racketeering Section in Chicago. Former assistant U.S. attorney. Also worked as a criminal defense attorney.

Family: Married, with 10 children and 25 grandchildren.

Quote: "You can't prejudge what you don't know anything about. I don't know what evidence Mr. Starr has, if any. Very honestly, that's one of the things that really bothers me about [Washington]: Everybody knows what Mr. Starr has, and really nobody knows what he has."

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