An investigative model: The Report Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Clinton could teach journalists a thing or two about digging for facts.

September 27, 1998|By Steve Weinberg

Independent counsel Kenneth Starr and his staff have pulled together information on the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky relationship in ways that would make many investigative reporters proud.

Granted, journalists rarely have access to grand jury testimony, as Starr did. Journalists cannot issue subpoenas to witnesses, as Starr did. Journalists cannot grant witnesses immunity from prosecution, as Starr did. Journalists cannot effectively threaten hold uncooperative sources in contempt of court, as Starr could. Journalists do not have millions of dollars to spend on an investigation.

But even if you discount all of Starr's advantages over journalists, his information-gathering can serve as a primer not only for reporters and editors but also for any citizen trying to evaluate the reliability of evidence in an era of information overload.

As a subscriber to the idea that Starr has been out of control as independent counsel, I decided last week to use my investigative training to evaluate the quality of the evidence leading to his Clinton-Lewinsky findings. Surely, I thought, an overzealous and apparently partisan independent counsel would take shortcuts in his information gathering to make his case.

Surely, I surmised, a lawyer such as Starr would fail to meet the information-gathering standards of the best investigative journalists, who earn credibility through thoroughness and fairness rather than through advocacy.

So I waited impatiently for the instant books containing the complete text of Starr's Clinton-Lewinsky findings - too vast for eyestrain-free reading on the Internet, too unwieldy for newspaper special sections.

The first to arrive came from Prima Publishing of Rocklin, Calif. (473 pages, $9.99). After reading it quickly to get a feel for Starr's case, I returned to the first page. From there, I painstakingly analyzed the information-gathering techniques buttressing the narrative and the 1,692 endnotes.

As I reached the 100th endnote, I began to realize that I had been wrong in my assumptions.

Beyond the obvious sources of Lewinsky and Clinton, Starr followed these people and paper trails:

* The United States Code, a compilation of all federal laws. It might seem an obvious source, but far too many information-gatherers fail to consult it. They ignore it at their peril, because it is vital to know the law word-for-word before determining if a suspect has violated it. In his report, Starr alleges, "Rather than lie to the grand jury himself, the President lied about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky to his senior aides, and those aides then conveyed the President's false story to the grand jury."

It Starr's allegation is correct, did Clinton violate the law?

Starr says yes, according to Title 18 of the U.S. Code, sections 1503 and 1512. The key phrasing, according to Starr, provides that whoever "corruptly I engages in misleading conduct toward another person, with intent to influence, delay, or prevent the testimony of any person in an official proceeding I shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both" (page 467, note 433, Prima edition).

* All portions of civil lawsuits. Included is the one that Paula Jones filed against Clinton for alleged sexual harassment while she worked for the state of Arkansas and he served as governor. There is far more publicly available documentation in court files than in the complaint.

In several places, Starr refers to evidence obtained from the discovery phase of the Jones lawsuit. As he explains, "The discovery process allows the parties to obtain from their respective opponents written answers to interrogatories, oral testimony in depositions under oath, documents and other tangible items so long as the information sought appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence" (page 51, note 5).

Starr has effectively mined interrogatories, depositions and documents from the Jones case and other lawsuits.

* Subpoenas. Prosecutors' subpoenas are usually filed in open court. Starr's subpoena to Lewinsky directed, in part, "Please produce each and every gift including, but not limited to, any and all dresses, accessories and jewelry and/or hat pins given to you by or on behalf of Defendant Clinton" (page 447, note 158).

* Legal precedents. The judicial system is weighted heavily toward validating previous court opinions. Knowing this, Starr cites decisions in previous sexual harassment cases to show why he needs to learn as much as possible about Clinton's behavior around women other than Lewinsky.

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