Starr explains leaks to press judge calls lawyers to her office

'Misimpression' claimed

attorneys in Lewinsky case summoned at night

June 16, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr confronted attacks over his admission that he leaked information about the Monica Lewinsky investigation to reporters, a federal judge summoned lawyers in the Lewinsky matter to her courtroom last evening.

Judge Norma Holloway Johnson held a rare nighttime meeting with President Clinton's private lawyer, David E. Kendall; the White House counsel, Charles Ruff, and his deputy; several of Starr's prosecutors; and lawyers for Lewinsky, the former White House intern, among others involved in the controversy.

Johnson oversees the grand jury investigating the Lewinsky case. It was unclear whether the judge's meeting -- lasting a half-hour and closed to the news media -- was related to the outcry over Starr's admitted leaks to the press.

None of the participants would comment, and under Johnson's orders, the contents of the meeting were not to be revealed.

Earlier yesterday, Starr insisted that the magazine that reported his comments about his press contacts created a "serious misimpression" of his activities.

Responding to the furor over his comments in Brill's Content, a new magazine about the media, Starr said his office "does not release grand jury material directly or indirectly, on-the-record or off-the-record and does not release [and has never released] information provided by witnesses during witness interviews, except as authorized by law."

In an interview with Starr in the premiere issue of the magazine, the Whitewater independent counsel acknowledged that he and his aides occasionally provided information about the Lewinsky matter to reporters on a "background" basis -- that is, on the condition that the source not be identified.

Federal grand jury secrecy laws and Justice Department guidelines bar prosecutors from disclosing information about grand jury proceedings. But it is a matter of dispute whether that prohibition applies to all information gathered by prosecutors for a grand jury's consideration.

Steven Brill, the magazine's editor and author of the article, said Starr's briefings for reporters "clearly violate the law as interpreted by various courts." Democrats have echoed his sentiments.

President Clinton declined to address the issue yesterday, but his spokesman, Mike McCurry, said the president "concurs" with those calling for an independent review of Starr's actions. Four months ago, Kendall asked Johnson to hold Starr in contempt, arguing that Starr had leaked grand jury material to the press.

Starr said over the weekend that his contacts with reporters were "legal" and "appropriate" because "we never discussed grand jury proceedings."

In a statement yesterday, Starr addressed one of his disclosures to the press -- information about the initial interview of Lewinsky by prosecutors and FBI agents. He said his office released information about the "circumstances" surrounding the interview, but not the "substance" of it.

"Our limited disclosure was entirely appropriate and dictated by Department of Justice policy to counter a serious, yet unfounded, allegation of misconduct -- namely, that Ms. Lewinsky was illegally detained and coerced during the interview," Starr said.

Clinton officials and allies seized the opportunity yesterday to attack Starr, their longtime nemesis.

Calling Starr's behavior "outrageous," Clinton adviser Paul Begala renewed the White House call for an independent investigator to examine Starr's actions. Lanny Davis, a former White House special counsel, said Starr should be dismissed by Attorney General Janet Reno.

Justice Department officials are reviewing the Brill article. Reno has said her investigators will not begin looking into the complaints about Starr until they hear from Johnson.

Without a fuller account of the substance of Starr's disclosures, it was unclear to legal experts whether the prosecutor had violated grand jury rules.

Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, said it is "quite common" for prosecutors to speak to the media. But, Gillers added, if it turns out that grand jury material was leaked by Starr, "there's no exception" that would allow disclosures in the name of correcting misinformation.

Katy Harriger, a Wake Forest University professor of politics, said that in highly politicized investigations, prosecutors often feel the need to get their side of the story out.

"It's not necessarily outrageous that Starr has done this," said Harriger, author of a book on special prosecutors. "But given the problems he's had with allegations of leaks coming out of his office, it doesn't seem like it was real wise."

Pub Date: 6/16/98

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