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Judge Tentatively Links 24 News Leaks to Starr's Office

Courts: Unsealed documents say a special master has been named to investigate and report on the possible violations of grand jury secrecy.

October 31, 1998|RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — There were 24 leaks of grand jury information in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation in violation of federal law and all were linked at least by inference to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's office, a federal judge said in court documents unsealed Friday.

Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who oversees federal grand jury proceedings here, said that "all 24 of the foregoing news reports constitute prima facie violations of Rule 6(e)"--the grand jury secrecy rule--by the independent counsel.

In the Sept. 24 document, Johnson appointed a special master and gave that person, whose name and gender were removed from the order without explanation, subpoena power to investigate the alleged leaks and report back to her, "preferably" by Nov. 30.

The issue is particularly sensitive for Starr, even though the judge stopped short of holding him in contempt, censuring him or otherwise reprimanding him. A finding critical of his office's conduct could damage Starr's credibility as he prepares to conclude his investigations and pursue possible legal action.

Judicial criticism of Starr also could affect the impeachment inquiry now being conducted by the House Judiciary Committee and any subsequent Senate trial, if impeachment is voted by the House.

In focusing on the 24 "key news reports" identified by President Clinton's lawyer David E. Kendall, who sought to have Starr held in contempt, Johnson did not issue findings on 111 additional press reports that Kendall and other lawyers attempted to link to Starr's office. Johnson said that she was acting in the interest of "judicial economy and to avoid overburdening the special master."

In her court order, Johnson cited news stories on television, in newspapers and in a magazine attributing information about the case to "sources close to the independent counsel," "sources in Ken Starr's office" and less direct references.

"While an article expressly identifying the [independent counsel] as the source of the Rule 6(e) information clearly supports a prima facie case, 'the article submitted need only be susceptible of an interpretation that the information reported was furnished by an attorney or agent of the [independent counsel],' " Johnson said, quoting a ruling from the federal appellate court here.

A statement issued Friday by Starr's office said that Johnson "has made only a preliminary finding based upon an extremely low threshold of proof. Indeed, at this stage, the court is required only to assume all attributions in the news reports are correct. We will continue to defend the integrity and professionalism of the men and women who serve this office."

The White House responded quickly to the judge's order.

Greg Craig, the president's special counsel for impeachment matters, said that the order "lends credence to what we have been saying all along. We believe that the office of the independent counsel has been waging a campaign of leaks against the president in an improper effort to influence public and congressional opinion. And it has done so in direct violation of federal laws safeguarding the confidentiality of grand jury proceedings."

Starr's statement called Craig's statement "false and misleading."

Craig said that the list of potential violations is "stunning" and that it suggests a "pattern of bias and unfairness that we believe has characterized this investigation."

"To leak information that would otherwise be secret shows a lack of respect for the rule of law and as well a lack of professionalism," he told reporters outside the White House.

Kendall, Clinton's private attorney, said in a written statement: "The court agreed with us that as to every one of the 24 media reports we identified, pursuant to the court's request, there is prima facie reason to believe that Mr. Starr's office is guilty of illegally leaking secret grand jury information."

Among the press reports cited:

* A Jan. 23 "CBS Evening News" broadcast that said "two sources familiar with the independent counsel's investigation tell CBS News that Kenneth Starr is "absolutely convinced that Monica Lewinsky was telling the truth when she was recorded by her friend Linda Tripp." Johnson said: "This insight into the strategy or direction of the grand jury investigation implicates attorneys or agents working for the [independent counsel] as the sources."

* A Jan. 24 Washington Post report of an immunity offer made to Lewinsky that noted "the offer was described yesterday by sources close to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr."

* A Feb. 5 CNN report that said "sources in Starr's office suggested that, if Monica Lewinsky does not negotiate an immunity deal quite soon, that they are prepared to go ahead and press charges against her."

Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this story.

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