Is Starr pursuing a political vendetta or truth and justice? Prosecutor known as professional, but some acts encourage critics

January 29, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A key part of the White House strategy for defusing the Monica Lewinsky crisis was demonstrated by Hillary Rodham Clinton over the past two days: Attack Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel, as being part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" against President Clinton.

Some might dismiss the attack as a desperate defensive tactic. Throughout his career as a litigator and a federal appellate judge, after all, Starr has built a reputation for caution, skill and integrity, not vendettas or radical plots.

At the same time, Starr's background as a partisan Republican -- and his sometimes questionable conduct over the 3 1/2 years of his Whitewater inquiry -- have given ammunition to his critics.

Starr's actions -- including his recent expansion of his investigation into a whole new realm -- have raised a question unlikely ever to be answered: Would a different independent counsel have led the Whitewater investigation down the same paths?

Would another independent counsel, appointed to investigate a land deal in Arkansas, end up, nearly four years and $34 million later, digging into intimate details of the president's private life?

"If something dire happens to President Clinton as a result of this, there will always be the argument that it was a political witch hunt," said Thomas Sargentich, a law professor at American University.

In this instance, as in the past, Sargentich points out, Starr has properly followed the law by expanding his inquiry only after authorization by Attorney General Janet Reno. Still, Sargentich says, Starr's occasional association with anti-Clinton forces is a "perfectly understandable and strong defense for President Clinton."

And it's a defense that might prove effective. At a time when Clinton's approval rating should be plummeting, it is not. Some say that doubts about the fairness and propriety of Starr's inquiry are taking some of the edge off outrage directed at the president.

Katy Harriger, a professor of politics at Wake Forest University and the author of a book on special prosecutors, said Starr is the first independent counsel with the kind of political baggage that invites skepticism and attacks such as those launched by Mrs. ** Clinton.

"Had the record on Starr been clear, this would be a much harder tack to take," Harriger said.

But under the circumstances, she added, "It's an inevitable tactic to choose." Although Lawrence E. Walsh, the Iran-contra special prosecutor, was accused by some Republicans of conducting an endless political witch hunt, "the accusations never went very far because he was a well-respected Republican judge," Harriger said.

Harriger contends that Starr was a poor choice for independent counsel because of his political activities, such as his vocal support of conservative groups that challenged Clinton's claim to immunity in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case. The Jones case is now entwined with the allegations under review by Starr that Clinton engaged in a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, a former White House intern, and instructed her to lie about it.

"Four years ago, you might have said Whitewater doesn't have anything to do with that," Harriger said, referring to the Jones case. "But here we are, four years later, and something emerges [in Starr's investigation] that is connected to the Paula Jones case. That's problematic."

The effectiveness of an independent counsel, Harriger said, "depends entirely on the willingness of people to believe an investigation is impartial."

From the start, Starr himself has rejected allegations that he is biased. This week, he called Mrs. Clinton's accusations "nonsense."

In an interview yesterday with Hearst Newspapers, Starr asserted that "my politics are irrelevant to my professional obligations."

And many who know him -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- say Starr is not a zealot driven by a conservative political agenda.

"I've known Ken Starr a long time, and I don't view him as particularly partisan," said Alan Morrison, a lawyer for the public interest group Public Citizen. "I think he's a fair and honest guy. He may have gone too far, but I don't think it was for political reasons."

"This is someone who follows the book," said Terry Eastland, a Reagan Justice official and author of a book on independent counsels. "Partisanship is not going to affect his judgment."

Partisanship, however, has been part of Starr's life since he grew up in San Antonio, the son of a conservative Baptist minister. His political career took off during the Reagan administration, when, as a 37-year-old Justice Department lawyer, Starr was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

In the Bush administration, Starr, widely known to aspire to the Supreme Court, was named solicitor general, the government's top lawyer, who argues cases before the high court.

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