Clinton lawyer talks to grand jury White House loses bid on privilege, tries anew

August 05, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- One of President Clinton's White House lawyers, Lanny Breuer, appeared before the Monica Lewinsky grand jury yesterday, after Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist rejected a White House plea to protect staff attorneys from having to testify about their talks with Clinton.

But Breuer's appearance sparked another skirmish. After he had testified for several hours, Breuer, prosecutors and White House lawyers met privately with U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson in what appeared to be another battle over the White House's claim of attorney-client privilege.

Rehnquist's denial marked the second time in three weeks that the White House has failed to prevent officials close to the president from having to answer questions in the Lewinsky investigation.

Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr wants to question White House lawyers in front of the grand jury about their discussions with Clinton on the Lewinsky matter, as part of an inquiry into possible perjury and obstruction of justice by the president or others.

Yesterday's ruling paved the way for Starr to call as a witness Bruce R. Lindsey, one of Clinton's closest and oldest confidants, and possibly other White House lawyers including the chief counsel, Charles F. C. Ruff.

Starr said he would wait until Lindsey recovered from recent back surgery before enforcing a subpoena for him to testify.

Since a federal appeals court rejected the White House plea last week, Clinton's lawyers have been preparing to ask the full Supreme Court to decide, when it convenes in the fall, whether Lindsey is protected by attorney-client privilege.

But once Starr subpoenaed Breuer, the White House asked the appeals court and Rehnquist to block testimony from both Lindsey and Breuer until the Supreme Court could rule.

The appeals court and the chief justice denied both requests. They said Breuer would have to assert attorney-client privilege in the grand jury as Lindsey did, beginning an entirely new case that Johnson would have to rule on before any higher courts could.

From the start of the 6-month-old Lewinsky sex and cover-up scandal, Breuer has been part of the Clinton legal team that has responded to Starr's subpoenas and requests for documents. He is among those who have debriefed witnesses after their grand jury appearances as a way to monitor what Starr may know.

Breuer is not thought to have first-hand knowledge of the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky, a former White House intern. But with prosecutors examining possible obstruction of justice and witness-tampering charges, Breuer was likely questioned yesterday about the White House's damage control strategy.

Meanwhile yesterday morning, Clinton met with his private lawyer, David E. Kendall, to prepare for his own testimony to the grand jury on Aug. 17. Clinton is expected to meet regularly with Kendall over the next 12 days.

Barry Toiv, a Clinton spokesman, said there were no plans for any public statements by the president before his testimony to the grand jury, even in the face of a chorus of Republicans and Democrats calling for Clinton to make a detailed public account of his relationship with Lewinsky.

Polls show that most Americans believe Clinton lied when he denied in a sworn deposition that he had had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. But, the polls suggest, most people would not favor impeachment if the president now changed his story to acknowledge having had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and said he had lied earlier to protect his family.

Toiv conceded that even some within the White House believe Clinton should make a full disclosure to the public. But, Toiv said, "I'm not aware of any real discussion of it at this time."

It was not known yesterday whether the FBI crime lab had determined what evidence, if any, was detected in initial testing on the dress that Lewinsky turned over to Starr and that she

reportedly says contains evidence of a sexual encounter with Clinton. Though preliminary tests have likely been completed, the FBI is not expected to make its findings public and is expected to inform only Starr's office of its results.

Lindsey has testified before Starr's grand jury in the past but refused to answer certain questions, claiming attorney-client privilege. A district court judge -- and, last week, a federal appeals panel -- said the privilege of secrecy between lawyer and client did not apply to the president's government-paid lawyers, as it did to his private lawyers, in a federal criminal investigation of government wrongdoing.

The White House, arguing that such a ruling will make it "perhaps impossible" for the president to obtain informed legal advice when performing his official duties, said it planned to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

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