Starr reported set to subpoena Clinton President wishes to avoid grand jury appearance

July 25, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- With Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr preparing a subpoena to force him to testify, President Clinton has told an adviser that he does not want to testify voluntarily before the federal grand jury investigating the Monica Lewinsky matter and become the first sitting president in history to appear before a grand jury, the adviser said yesterday.

Clinton's remarks came earlier this week after prosecutors working for Starr informed David E. Kendall, Clinton's personal lawyer, that they were preparing to serve the president with a subpoena, senior administration officials and lawyers close to the case said yesterday. It was unclear last night whether the subpoena had been served or whether prosecutors intended to serve it soon.

Earlier this week, Kendall reopened negotiations that would allow Clinton to cooperate with Starr's grand jury without having to force him to appear at the federal courthouse on Pennsylvania Avenue, just a few blocks from the White House, the lawyers said.

"Mr. Kendall has been trying to work out with Mr. Starr something that would help insure that the information is provided that is needed, consistent with the president's view that we should cooperate," said White House press secretary Mike McCurry yesterday.

Clinton prefers to answer questions at the White House, where he has given sworn testimony several times to Starr and his predecessor, Robert Fiske, on a variety of Whitewater-related matters. Portions of his testimony were later read to grand jurors.

Two lawyers close to Clinton said the president would much prefer cooperating with Starr's prosecutors by providing them with a videotaped deposition in a White House session or sworn answers to a list of written questions.

"We have a history," one lawyer said. "We have found ways in the past to comply with legitimate requests."

In recent months, Clinton has refused as many as six invitations by Starr's prosecutors to voluntarily appear before the federal grand jury that is investigating whether he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, a 25-year-old former White House intern, and then sought to cover it up.

According to an adviser of Clinton who insisted on anonymity, Clinton expressed "strong" feelings in a recent conversation that he did not want to appear in person before Starr's grand jury, which is impaneled at the federal courthouse near Capitol Hill. The adviser said Clinton views Starr's inquiry as unfair, politically motivated and even illegitimate.

When told about those remarks, a member of Clinton's legal team said the president is prone to fits of anger and frustration with the 6-month-old Starr investigation. The lawyer said Clinton's strategy is to attempt to negotiate a compromise with Starr's office, rather than risk provoking a constitutional confrontation.

Legal scholars are sharply divided on whether a sitting president can be forced to take the stand in a criminal investigation, or whether a grand jury can return an indictment against a president.

Starr's prosecutors and White House lawyers also have very different views of whether a criminal subpoena of the president is constitutionally permissible. Starr's office believes that such a subpoena would pass constitutional muster, but Clinton's lawyers believe only the House of Representatives has such authority.

Charles Bakaly, a spokesman for Starr, declined to comment yesterday about the matter.

The president has said very little about his relationship with Lewinsky. In January, shortly after the Lewinsky accusations surfaced, he and his staff pledged to cooperate in the inquiry. He said he would like to clear up questions raised by the Lewinsky matter "sooner rather than later."

If Starr chose to subpoena the president, rather than negotiate the terms of his testimony, the move could prompt Clinton to claim that constitutional protections shield him from such inquiries. A member of his legal team, W. Neil Eggleston, is researching the legal and constitutional questions arising from such a challenge, but he declined to comment yesterday.

If Starr subpoenaed the president and Clinton chose to fight it, the court battle surrounding such a move could delay Starr's inquiry for months.

Starr and Fiske have also questioned Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House about the Clintons' business affairs in Arkansas. In early 1996, Starr ordered Mrs. Clinton to appear before a grand jury in Washington. Her appearance was demanded after a copy of some of the billing records from her old law firm mysteriously surfaced in the residence of the White House nearly two years after they were first subpoenaed.

Pub Date: 7/25/98

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