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Key Starr Staffer Finds Spotlight's Glare Harsh

Michael Emmick, counsel's point man in dealings with ex-intern Lewinsky, has inspired criticism, admiration.

March 12, 1998|DAVID WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Barely eight months into a high-stakes assignment examining the actions of the president of the United States, Michael W. Emmick finds his own conduct under scrutiny.

Emmick, who for 15 years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles prosecuted fraud and public-corruption cases, is now a key member of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's staff.

Along with other investigators, Emmick spent about nine hours on Jan. 16 with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky at a mall and hotel complex in suburban Virginia. He tried to persuade the 24-year-old woman to cooperate with the investigation into whether President Clinton had encouraged her to lie under oath in a civil lawsuit about the nature of their relationship.

It is in no small part because he was Starr's point man in the initial dealings with Lewinsky that Emmick has drawn more media attention than most of Starr's 21 other prosecutors.

Commentator Geraldo Rivera recently branded him "Ken Starr's pit bull." Another pundit called him the "most zealous" of the independent counsel's prosecutors.

Emmick, 45, a graduate of UCLA Law School, worked two years at the Los Angeles firm of Tuttle & Taylor before becoming an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles in 1982.

Emmick built a niche prosecuting defense contractors and government officials on corruption and fraud charges.

In the early 1990s, Emmick was among those who prosecuted a group of Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies as part of what was called "Operation Big Spender." The operation resulted in the corruption-related convictions of 35 deputies.

Attorney Roger L. Cossack, who successfully defended one accused deputy, described Emmick as fair-minded. "I've known the guy for 15 years, and I always found him to be an ethical, good prosecutor."

But Lindsay A. Weston, who also successfully defended a deputy, criticized Emmick as having no judgment. "He doesn't know when to reel back in. It's absolutely a perfect fit: Mike Emmick working for Ken Starr."

Some published criticisms of Emmick's conduct were based on remarks made by a federal judge who dismissed a tax indictment brought by the U.S. attorney's office against the wife of one of the accused officers.

"The government's intent was callous, coercive and vindictive," U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi said on July 18, 1994.

However, the actions Takasugi cited involved an assistant U.S. attorney who was two levels below Emmick, records and interviews show. A year later, Takasugi addressed Emmick's conduct specifically.

"As far as the court's view is concerned," Takasugi said at a hearing on Oct. 11, 1995, "I have learned . . . that Mr. Emmick is a man of great integrity."

In considering Emmick for his current position, Starr sought references from two judges: Emmick provided the names of Takasugi and U.S. District Judge Lourdes G. Baird, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles from 1990 to 1992.

"He's clearly a very intelligent, a very ethical young man," Baird said in an interview. "He was a hard-driving prosecutor, but he was never overzealous."

The focus on Emmick has been magnified, if inadvertently, by Starr, who summoned before a federal grand jury White House aide Sidney Blumenthal.

Blumenthal told The Times he testified that information about Emmick first came to him from Stanley K. Sheinbaum, the former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission.

Blumenthal said Sheinbaum faxed him a news article, "and he told me some things about Michael Emmick [that] he had heard."

Sheinbaum said he provided Blumenthal with "casual comments" and with the article, which raised questions about Emmick's ethics. Sheinbaum said he had learned, from making inquiries, that Emmick had "a little bit of a reputation. I had heard that he's tough, aggressive."

Sheinbaum, a prominent liberal activist, said he passed the information to the White House because "I'm a supporter of the president."

Emmick, who before coming to Washington had lost out on a promotion, said he took a one-year assignment on Starr's staff because "this was an opportunity to work in the nation's capital for a discrete period of time [on] an exciting and challenging investigation of possible misconduct by the nation's highest officials. It was an easy decision."

Times staff writers Elizabeth Shogren and Ronald J. Ostrow in Washington and Henry Weinstein in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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