Ethics insurance at $3,200 a week Whitewater counsel's adviser assumes a larger role in probe

April 15, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Samuel Dash, the celebrated lawyer who was hired by Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in 1994 to advise him on ethics issues, is now playing a much broader role in the investigation -- and collecting a sizable government-paid fee for his services.

Mr. Dash said that while Mr. Starr hired him to work on ethics questions, he is now weighing in on everything from prosecutorial strategy to dealing with witnesses.

"He's asked me to go beyond ethics issues," said Mr. Dash, a 71-year-old full-time law professor at Georgetown University who gained fame as chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee.

For his part-time services -- which include advising Mr. Starr on how much of his $1 million-a-year private law practice he may retain while leading the government's Whitewater investigation -- Mr. Dash is paid a flat fee of $3,200 a week.

The professor, whose pay was raised by Mr. Starr from $1,600 a week in July, said he works an average of 20 hours a week, sometimes up to 30 hours, for the Whitewater prosecutor, but is charging Mr. Starr for only eight hours a week, at his regular consulting rate of $400 an hour.

"This is pro bono," Mr. Dash said with a laugh, referring to the public-interest work lawyers do for no pay.

When it was suggested to him that only by superlawyer standards would $3,200 a week be considered "pro bono," he said, with apologies for immodesty, "People of my stature charge way more than I do."

Mr. Dash, whose Whitewater pay was disclosed recently by the Arkansas Times, was hired by Mr. Starr in October 1994, two months after Mr. Starr was chosen to head the inquiry, which reaches up to the Clinton presidency.

A highly respected lawyer and a Democrat, Mr. Dash was retained to calm concerns about Mr. Starr's impartiality, given his background as an active and partisan Republican, and his selection by judges with ties to conservative Republicans.

In the 1970s, Mr. Dash assisted Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in devising the American Bar Association's ethical standards for prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers.

Mr. Dash, who also helped draft the law that established the independent counsel's office, noted that he is the first person to be an outside ethics adviser to an independent counsel.

"This is somewhat unique," Mr. Dash said. "Starr felt when he was appointed, fairly or unfairly, there was quite a bit of criticism because he was a partisan Republican. There was some concern, at the White House and other places, that he may not be objective.

"My personal belief is he didn't need me. But he was thinking of perception problems. He thought it was proper, to preserve public confidence, to bring someone like me in. He felt he needed somebody to assure the public that his decisions are being made on the basis of the right judgments."

Mr. Dash's weekly fee would amount to an annual rate of about $160,000 a year. But officials with Mr. Starr's office have said he won't receive that much because they are applying to Mr. Dash, an independent contractor, the same salary cap of $115,700 that applies to employees of the independent counsel's office. So far, Mr. Dash has been paid $147,200 for the 16 months he has worked for Mr. Starr.

Many lawyers believe the hiring of Mr. Dash was a masterful strategic move by Mr. Starr, insulating him from political-bias charges by having a prominent Democrat look over his shoulder each step of the way.

But some have questioned the need for such a sizable expense, given that an independent counsel is hired precisely because of his or her ostensible impartiality.

Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel in the Iran-contra case, said he thought it was "regrettable" that such an expense must be incurred to ensure the perception of objectivity.

'A defensive measure'

"It's really a defensive measure," said Mr. Walsh, a Republican former federal judge. "But the question is, why do you get in a position where you have to defend yourself? The real thing [an independent counsel] brings that nobody else can bring is his independence. That's the excuse for this very expensive procedure."

Mr. Walsh said that during the Iran-contra investigation, he sought the help of Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor, for ethics concerns about the publication of his final report. But, he said, Mr. Tribe did not accept a fee.

Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York %o University who was critical of Mr. Starr's appointment because of his history as an outspoken Republican, said he thought such a six-figure expense could be damaging.

"When the public hears that the independent counsel -- who is there supposedly because of his distance from the traditional prosecutorial office -- needs an independent counsel for ethics advice [at a substantial cost], it's almost impossible to explain how that can be so," Mr. Gillers said. "The perception is that something's amiss."

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