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Lewinsky's Legal Team Jumps Into a Game in Progress

Inquiry: Starr has spent months investigating the ex-intern's relationship with Clinton. Defense attorneys must carefully debrief their client.

June 13, 1998|ROBERT L. JACKSON and RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Monica S. Lewinsky's new legal team arrived last week at a high-stakes poker game where "a lot of the hand has already been dealt," making their effort to craft a bid for immunity from prosecution all the more difficult.

Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's office and a federal grand jury have spent almost five months investigating the nature of Lewinsky's relationship with President Clinton and whether they or others attempted to cover it up.

Both Lewinsky and the president have denied under oath that they had a sexual relationship.

"This case is not in the formative stage it was when William Ginsburg [Lewinsky's previous lawyer] showed up," explained Terrence B. Adamson, a former high-ranking Justice Department official in the Jimmy Carter administration, because Starr has "filled in a lot of the peripheral details by now."

He suggested that Starr and his staff have worked hard to corroborate statements Lewinsky made in confidential phone conversations taped by former friend Linda Tripp.

The prosecution's theory is that Lewinsky's taped admissions of sexual encounters with Clinton represent the truth. But Lewinsky said in one conversation, "I've lied all my life."

Legal experts said Starr recognizes that his case lacks the key evidence that grand jury testimony by Lewinsky could provide. Nonetheless, despite the eagerness of both sides to arrange a deal, the parties are engaged in a complicated legal dance whose final steps remain unclear.

While Lewinsky's new attorneys, Washington veterans Jacob A. Stein and Plato Cacheris, have refused to comment on their strategy, a former prosecutor who knows both men said debriefing the former White House intern could be no easy task.

"You have to explain clearly to a client the benefits and pitfalls of getting immunity," this attorney said.

"The chief benefit is you're not prosecuted. But the pitfall is once you get it, if you don't tell the truth, you're toast. Don't even think about it unless you intend to tell the truth."

As Lewinsky's lawyers seek to deal with Starr to protect her from criminal charges, their greatest challenge may lie in their client's lack of credibility resulting from statements she had made.

Stein and Cacheris, for example, must be able to reconcile Lewinsky's current intentions with a still-secret written "proffer" given to prosecutors earlier this year by Ginsburg.

In that statement, sources said, Lewinsky offered to testify that she had a relationship with the president that involved oral sex but that no one suggested she lie about it.

Starr refused to grant immunity based on that offer, apparently considering it to be inadequate because it did not provide more serious evidence sought by Starr that Clinton or any aide illegally coached Lewinsky to commit perjury.

And if Lewinsky sticks to the same story in the current round of negotiations, that could mean she has no evidence damaging to others with which to "buy" immunization for herself, other lawyers said.

"The biggest problem could be that the truth isn't what Starr wants it to be," one remarked.

On the other hand, Lewinsky is in a position to clear up central mysteries in the case, including the origins of a three-page summary of "talking points" she gave to Pentagon colleague Tripp.

The summary suggested how Tripp could give a false statement in the now-dismissed Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment lawsuit against the president.

It is likely that Starr also would want Lewinsky to explain the reported 37 visits she made to the White House after being transferred to the Pentagon, and why several gifts she received from the president were returned to, or retrieved by, Betty Currie, the president's private secretary.

"Starr will have to be satisfied with everything she says," observed another former Justice Department official, who declined to be named. "She and her lawyers cannot eliminate any areas from discussion."

Because Stein and Cacheris are well-connected Washington veterans, there has been speculation in some quarters they might steer her away from giving damaging testimony against the president, one of whose lawyers is Robert S. Bennett, a longtime friend of both men, or against the president's golfing pal, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., who sought to line up a job for Lewinsky and is represented by Cacheris' former law partner, William G. Hundley.

However, several legal experts discounted this view.

E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., a prominent defense attorney and onetime prosecutor, said that "all of us are regularly involved in cases where our friends in the legal community are on the other side. You absolutely put the interests of your client above all else.

"One lawyer friend once told me, 'All I ask is that if you stab me, do it in my chest and not my back. Let me see it coming.' The thought is we all may have to stab each other from time to time for the sake of our clients."

Despite the difficulties inherent in obtaining immunity for Lewinsky, some defense experts assert that Stein and Cacheris enjoy leverage with Starr because the alternative to a grant of immunity would be an unpopular and probably unproductive indictment of her, possibly on charges of perjury or obstructing justice.

"Indicting Monica does not make sense because Starr has got to move quickly," one expert said. "He's in a time bind, and an indictment would mean years of litigation."

Added another defense lawyer, a former federal prosecutor:

"Starr has got to recognize that an indictment of Lewinsky is a huge risk that is doomed to failure. The likelihood of prevailing in a criminal case with these two guys [Stein and Cacheris] is pretty slim, and Starr's got to know that."

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