Number of alleged Starr leaks raised to 24 contempt possible

Judge sets timetable for special master's report, prosecutor's reply

October 31, 1998|By Susan Baer and Lyle Denniston | Susan Baer and Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Citing 24 incidents suggesting that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's office improperly leaked information to reporters, a federal judge has ordered a full-scale investigation to wind up late this year -- an inquiry that could lead to a contempt-of-court citation.

U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, in a late September ruling unsealed yesterday, said that President Clinton's lawyers had produced evidence of "serious and repetitive" violations of grand jury secrecy rules.

By increasing the number of possible violations she had found earlier, the judge complicated Starr's task of justifying his handling of grand jury secrets. She thus raised the prospect that the prosecutor and some of his aides could face punishment serious enough to hurt their reputations and possibly to shut down any further inquiry into Clinton's actions.

Johnson had ruled in June that Clinton's lead attorney, David E. Kendall, offered enough evidence in six instances of alleged leaks to require Starr to answer the Kendall allegations. Yesterday, she cited 18 further instances -- and indicated that she could have found more -- and laid out the procedures the inquiry will now follow.

The evidence behind the 24 alleged leaks, on dates beginning the day the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, was strong enough to warrant a wide-ranging inquiry by an outside investigator -- a "special master" -- with broad powers to demand information from Starr and his aides.

The judge noted that, if grand jury secrets were "knowingly" made public, they could be "punished as a contempt of court." Such punishment, she said, could include "contempt sanctions" -- possibly including fines -- and court orders restricting the scope of the inquiry and Starr's options for further action.

Johnson's order told the special master she has chosen -- whose name was deleted from the ruling -- to submit an initial report as of yesterday and a complete report of findings "preferably by the end of November." Starr will then have 15 days to respond.

The special master was given authority to subpoena documents, such as telephone records and appointment records, from Starr's office and to interview current or former members of the independent counsel's staff.

In her ruling, Johnson cited news reports about the Lewinsky investigation that attributed information to "sources familiar with the independent counsel's investigation" and "federal law enforcement sources."

The alleged leaks began Jan. 21, Johnson said, when NBC News reported that "federal law enforcement sources tell NBC News" that they were prepared to offer Lewinsky a choice between immunity or prosecution.

Such information, Johnson said, identified a target of the grand jury investigation and "also reveals the strategy or direction" of Starr's probe.

Johnson cites three news reports the next day that contain evidence of leaks from Starr's office, including one TV report that cites "prosecutors" as disclosing infor- mation about the "talking points" memo that Lewinsky gave her former colleague Linda R. Tripp.

"The law makes it perfectly clear that government attorneys may not reveal documentary evidence that is likely to be presented to the grand jury," Johnson wrote. "Furthermore, these statements also reveal the scope, focus, and direction of the grand jury investigation -- a plain violation of Rule 6(e)."

Rule 6(e) is the federal regulation designed to protect the secrecy of grand jury investigations. It applies to any government attorney or other federal employee working for a prosecutor. Johnson interpreted that rule broadly, saying it applies not only to what witnesses say to the grand jury, but also to the prosecutors' strategy in an investigation.

Starr has denied illegally leaking grand jury material, and said yesterday that his office was "cooperating" with the investigation Johnson ordered. He has acknowledged holding confidential "briefings" with reporters. But he has denied that his discussions included secret grand jury material. Johnson's findings indicated that she had given Kendall the benefit of the doubt about whether there were leaks.

The White House was quick to comment on the judge's findings. Gregory Craig, the White House special counsel, called the list of potential violations "stunning."

"This lends credence to what we have been saying all along," he said. "We believe the Office of the Independent Counsel has been waging a campaign of leaks against the president, in an improper effort to influence public and congressional opinion, and has done so in direct violation of federal laws safeguarding the confidentiality of grand jury proceedings."

Pub Date: 10/31/98

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