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Cloud Lifted, Ex-Starr Aide Starts New Job

Law: Charles G. Bakaly III was acquitted of lying. He will head public relations office in Washington, D.C.

May 26, 2001|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Shaken but unbroken, Los Angeles lawyer Charles G. Bakaly III--the only man prosecuted in the criminal courts for his role in the Monica S. Lewinsky affair--returned to Washington last week intent on resuming his career.

The chief spokesman for independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, Bakaly was accused of lying to a judge about leaking information in the investigation that led to former President Clinton's impeachment. Abruptly fired by Starr, Bakaly spent months under a cloud of suspicion before a federal judge cleared him of the charge, which could have meant a jail sentence of up to six months and probable disbarment.

Now Bakaly is back, as Washington director of a Los Angeles-based public relations firm, Sitrick & Co., which itself has a history of controversy. The firm represented Orange County in bankruptcy in 1995 and later lopped $80,000 off its $450,000 bill after criticism that it was excessive. Bakaly is also bent on teaching law school students about the interaction of lawyers and journalists.

"There are few lawyers who also have media relations skills, as I do," the 46-year-old Bakaly said over a recent lunch. Before persuading Starr to hire him, the Pasadena native had handled public information for another Washington-based independent counsel, Donald C. Smaltz. He also had worked in the White House communications office in the Ronald Reagan administration.

Bakaly seems philosophical but not bitter about the months he spent under investigation, indictment and trial in federal court--as well as his 2 1/2-month wait for the chief judge to render her verdict last October.

He believes his troubles "bordered on an act of God."

"I found myself in the eye of a storm, a perfect storm, which was beyond the control of anyone, including Charles Bakaly," he said.

Michael Sitrick, who founded the firm Bakaly now works for, said he talked to "a number of people before we made our decision to hire Charles. Everyone--including some close to Clinton--felt he had acted professionally and that there was no basis for bringing the charges against him. He was exonerated."

Besides, Sitrick added, "we're a public relations firm that deals in crises. . . . We need people who have had experience under fire, and Charles fits the bill."

Bakaly's troubles started early in Clinton's Senate impeachment trial when the New York Times published a front-page story claiming Starr believed he had authority to obtain an indictment of Clinton while he still was president.

The article, which quoted unnamed "associates of Starr," was immediately attacked by the White House on the assumption that Starr had leaked the story to influence senators deliberating Clinton's fate.

Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who had supervisory authority over Starr's grand jury, demanded that Starr investigate the leak. Suspicion immediately focused on Bakaly, who had daily contacts with the media.

After initially denying responsibility, Bakaly later acknowledged in a series of FBI interviews that he had met with the reporter, Don Van Natta Jr., three times and had 24 phone conversations with him in the days before the story appeared. Bakaly insisted that his earlier denial in a sworn affidavit was based on the belief that Judge Johnson was referring only to secret grand jury information.

Starr fired Bakaly in March 1999 upon learning of his deeper involvement. At his trial last year on charges he had lied in his sworn statement to the judge, Bakaly acknowledged his declaration may have been oversimplified because it implied "that I had not provided any information for the article, and I did."

Bakaly's insistence he had tried to help the reporter "on background" without being quoted struck a familiar chord in the capital. It is common practice in Washington for government information officers, when confronted with a possible news story they view as troublesome, to try to steer reporters to take a different approach, often without being identified.

With this objective, he gave the newspaper an internal memo from Starr's office discussing legal questions dating back to the Watergate era surrounding a potential presidential indictment. He hoped the reporter would write a story discussing whether any sitting president could be indicted.

Asked recently if he had been naive, Bakaly said, "Well, I'm not infallible. Was I too aggressive in trying to get information out to the public, in trying to educate the public and the media? I think I was caught in the confluence of a very powerful president whose assistants were masters of spin and an independent counsel who was very powerful, as well as the chief judge, another very powerful person."

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