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THE STARR REPORT

O.C. Recruit Recounts Long Days on Starr's Team

Probe: Thomas H. Bienert Jr., once the county's top federal prosecutor, describes a churning work pace, endless strategizing and little time to catch his breath.

September 12, 1998|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The workdays started early and routinely stretched late into the night, marked by intense round-table discussions that were held seven days a week and could last up to 14 hours.

It was in this pressure-cooker environment that Thomas H. Bienert Jr., Orange County's former top federal prosecutor, found himself working alongside independent counsel Kenneth Starr. He played a key role in the investigation that helped lead to an unprecedented report made public Friday calling for impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.

Bienert spoke publicly for the first time this week about his months as a handpicked member of Starr's legal team, describing how he and others toiled away in thrown-together offices full of exposed wiring and stacks of paper at a nondescript government building on Pennsylvania Avenue, halfway between the White House and the Capitol.

He described a stress-filled atmosphere with intense camaraderie and occasional friction between members of the team of about 30 veteran prosecutors from across the country.

The work was "exceedingly interesting and all-encompassing," he said.

He also had time for little else. With the exception of a few quick weekend trips home, he had all of one day off during his five-month stint that began in February and ended in mid-June. "Washington seems like a very pretty city, but I didn't see much of it. . . . When you were there working on this, man, it was your life," he said.

The pace was hectic. He and other investigative lawyers worked with FBI and IRS agents to interview and prepare witnesses for the grand jury. They brainstormed daily in the round-table meetings, during which attorneys were encouraged to discuss their progress and voice their opinions on the direction of the investigation.

In these meetings, tempers sometimes flared. But Bienert downplayed reports that the team became fractured.

"There was never anything that rose to the level of vitriol," said Bienert, who recalled that he was sometimes on the losing end and sometimes on the winning end in the meetings. "Was there heated debate on occasion? Absolutely. Did it ever rise to the level of unprofessional or overemotional? No."

These meetings would become the hallmark of Starr's decision-making process, said Bienert, who added that it was this meticulous airing of opinions that he believes helped Starr produce a report that can withstand the criticism sure to follow.

"His method is almost professorial. . . . It may have taken a little longer, but I think it produced a much more comprehensive piece of work," Bienert said.

Despite a flurry of allegations that Starr's team was behind a number of leaks seen as damaging to the president, Bienert said he and others were frequently admonished that they faced firing if they spoke to the media.

There were sometimes fears that the phone lines into the independent counsel's offices were being tapped by the media or government employees. Once, Bienert recalled, security guards moved in to question the driver of an unmarked camera truck with a large antenna pointed directly at their fourth-floor office windows, but it sped off when they approached.

Bienert tried to maintain a low profile but in at least one instance found it impossible: He was watching a televised report on the investigation late one night and was surprised to catch a glimpse of himself walking into the federal courthouse in Washington on a chilly February day. That scene has become stock footage, shown again and again in recent months, resulting in phone calls from friends asking Bienert why he is wearing a trench coat in midsummer.

Bienert is an experienced trial lawyer who successfully prosecuted Los Angeles sheriff's deputies and their family members who stole drug funds on obstruction of justice and perjury charges earlier in his career. He said going from being Orange County's top prosecutor to one of more than two dozen investigators took some getting used to.

"It was definitely an adjustment, not being the one making the call, just being one of the troops . . . but I definitely felt my role was appreciated."

Bienert, 37, recently returned to Orange County and a job in private practice at the Newport Beach office of Irell & Manella. He has a 4-year-old daughter by an earlier marriage.

Full of praise for the oft-criticized Starr, he said, "I don't want to just sound like a cheerleader" but insisted he never saw an indication that the former judge and U.S. solicitor general was simply out to "get" Clinton for political reasons, as some critics have charged.

"He was given a mandate, and he carried it out in a professional, unbiased manner," said Bienert, a registered Republican. "I wouldn't be part of an unfair, biased investigation." He said he is proud to be a "part of history that my daughter will read about in high school."

Bienert first met Starr in late January, when he flew to D.C. on a Sunday night to meet with the independent counsel and the rest of his staff over a lasagna dinner at Starr's home. He began work in the capital four days later, starting the day after reports of White House secretary Betty Currie's grand jury testimony, and continuing until the end of Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan's reported appearances.

"I hope people can push aside everything they've heard for the last eight months and then be able to make up their own minds," Bienert said. "All the enigma, mystery and possible distortions will go by the wayside. The people who should judge will have that opportunity."

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