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Learning Curve Hits Learned Counsel

Media: Prosecutor Starr is on defensive after published interview. Episode is seen as a sign of his lack of political savvy.

June 17, 1998|DOYLE McMANUS and DAVID WILLMAN and RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In a cynical city of deals and double-deals, Kenneth W. Starr might just be the last befuddled innocent.

The independent counsel says that he prays before every courtroom appearance, sings hymns on morning jogs near the Potomac and thinks about Atticus Finch, the heroic defense attorney of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Starr says that he hasn't leaked any improper information to reporters and he trusts that his assistants haven't, either.

But he trusted a reporter--Steven Brill, the editor of a new magazine called Brill's Content--and that has landed him in trouble.

To his adversaries, Starr is a right-wing zealot and a hypocrite--"out to get the president at any cost and any means justify the end," former White House aide Harold M. Ickes charged.

To his friends, Starr is a fine boardroom lawyer who is sorely out of his element in a high-stakes political battle--and unequipped to handle even the likes of Brill. "I was floored," one Starr friend, Democratic lawyer Terrence B. Adamson, said of the independent counsel's decision to talk with the magazine editor. "That's like asking for it."

To Washington's continuing bewilderment, the real Starr may be a bit of both models: zealous and naive, a little bit self-righteous and a good bit clumsy.

In an independent counsel, it is an explosive mixture: a man seemingly convinced of his own probity, handed a broad mandate to investigate the alleged sins of a president--and certain that if he could only explain himself fully, the public would understand.

"You cannot defile the temple of justice," he told reporters on his front lawn in suburban Virginia in April. "You will never hear me besmirching anyone's reputation. Not once. Never in all of this four years of activity have I ever said anything to besmirch anyone's reputation."

The independent counsel was defending himself again Tuesday, issuing a 19-page letter that flatly denied any leakage of information about grand jury witnesses from anyone on his staff.

"We have not disclosed this information to the media and [the] claim that I have admitted doing so is false," Starr wrote, adding that Brill's article was "reckless and irresponsible" and "borders on the libelous."

David E. Kendall, President Clinton's private lawyer, did not buy it. "You are now attempting to justify leaking by you and your office by claiming that the information . . . is not covered" by grand jury secrecy rules, he wrote. "The actions of your office are in violation of the law."

At the core of the controversy is not the question of whether Starr ever talked to reporters. He has done so in public and, as he acknowledged to Brill, in private as well.

"Providing background [briefings] is something that prosecutors have done for a long time," said Adamson, who served in the Justice Department under President Carter.

The real question is whether Starr or his prosecutors gave reporters information about the evidence his investigators were gathering from witnesses. His office is trying to determine whether Clinton lied under oath about an alleged sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

In his article, Brill charged that much of the information that made its way into the media in the first few weeks of the scandal came directly from Starr's office.

Starr has repeatedly denied that and his long letter Tuesday specifically denied leaking a list of stories that Brill ascribed to his office. He also quoted reporters for NBC, Newsweek and the Washington Post calling Brill's article inaccurate about their stories.

And he went on the attack, charging that the White House may have leaked information and then blamed the leaks on his office.

"It takes little imagination to divine that the strategies of gathering and leaking incriminating information could be used to maximum advantage . . . particularly if the leaks were blamed falsely on the [independent counsel]," he wrote.

It was a characteristic response. In four years of public statements and increasingly bitter battles, the public Starr has always been certain of his mission, confident of his staff--and thin-skinned about any questioning of their conduct.

In April, he was asked why he continued to investigate the possibility of perjury or other crimes in the Lewinsky matter, despite the dismissal of Paula Corbin Jones' sexual misconduct suit against the president, the litigation that spawned the investigative firestorm.

"It is very important that the law and the legal process have complete integrity and that people be honest," Starr explained.

"There's no room for white lies. There's no room for shading. There's only room for truth. . . . You cannot defile the temple of justice. You cannot, through--and I hope it was not done--subornation of perjury, intimidation of witnesses and obstruction of justice. Rather, you must play by the rules. We all must play by the rules. . . .

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