WASHINGTON -- A day after Kenneth W. Starr's 12-hour appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, his venerable ethics adviser, Sam Dash, resigned in protest yesterday, saying Starr had "unlawfully intruded on the power of impeachment" through his "aggressive" advocacy against President Clinton.
The move by Dash -- who served as chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee -- could further dampen the Republican drive to impeach the president. Another House Republican, Rep. John Edward Porter of Illinois, announced yesterday that he would vote against impeachment and estimated that as many as 50 Republicans in the House might not support impeachment if it reached the floor.
"If I'm correct, the votes aren't there," Porter said.
Nonetheless, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee lavished praise yesterday on Starr's performance Thursday, pronounced themselves rejuvenated and detailed plans to expand their impeachment investigation.
"It clearly bolstered the committee itself," Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, a committee Republican, said of Starr's appearance. "If anyone was leaning against [impeachment], I saw no evidence of cold feet at the end of the day."
Even so, Dash's resignation served again to turn the spotlight away from Clinton's conduct and toward Starr's own -- a blow to whatever momentum Starr might have generated with his dispassionate testimony and mostly unflappable demeanor.
"Against my strong advice, you decided to depart from your usual professional decision-making by accepting the invitation of the House Judiciary Committee to appear before the committee and serve as an aggressive advocate for the proposition that the president committed impeachable offenses," Dash wrote. "In doing this you have violated your obligations under the independent counsel statute and have unlawfully intruded on the power of impeachment which the Constitution gives solely to the House."
Starr had turned to Dash, a registered Democrat, in October 1994 after the White House and the president's supporters had vociferously questioned Starr's impartiality, given his background as an active and partisan Republican and his selection by judges with ties to conservative Republicans.
Dash's face became a fixture during the Watergate hearings. Over the years, he became something of a gray eminence in legal circles, teaching at Georgetown law school and helping to draft the law that established the independent counsel's office.
In the 1970s, Dash aided Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in devising the American Bar Association's ethical standards for prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers. Dash's name was frequently invoked by Starr as proof of the independent counsel's nonpartisan fair-mindedness.
Indeed, Starr and Judiciary Committee Republicans mentioned Dash repeatedly during Thursday's impeachment hearing, with Starr hailing Dash's "great wisdom during my tenure." Yet within hours, Dash, the first outside ethics adviser to an independent counsel, had released a harshly worded letter of resignation.
"Frequently you have publicly stated that you have sought my advice in major decisions and had my approval," Dash wrote to Starr. "I cannot allow that inference to continue regarding your present abuse of your office and have no other choice but to resign."
Starr portrayed Dash's departure as a "gentle disagreement" over their interpretations of the statute that created and empowers the independent counsel. In his letter, Dash asserted that Starr should never have appeared before the Judiciary Committee to defend his impeachment report. Starr said he had been asked to appear and could hardly refuse the invitation.
Last night, in a written reply to Dash, Starr said he thought Dash's criticism reflected "an inaccurate view of the law, as well as of the events that unfolded yesterday."
Starr continued: "A refusal to appear would have suggested we have something to hide or that we are unwilling to defend and stand by" the impeachment report already delivered to Congress.
One lawyer close to Dash said his decision to resign was a difficult one because "he's very close to Ken Starr" and was well-aware that his departure could be damaging to the prosecutor's credibility.
The source said Dash and Starr had been discussing "for some time" the propriety of Starr's planned appearance before the Judiciary Committee. He said Dash had waited until yesterday to resign because "he wasn't sure what would be done at the hearing itself. He feels Starr went a little too far."
Delighted by the opening, Democrats pounced on Dash's announcement and tried to gain advantage from the turn of events.
"Sam Dash's criticism of Ken Starr's appearance before the House Judiciary Committee is right on target," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan, a committee Democrat from Massachusetts. "Ken Starr's willingness to make a case for impeachment just reinforces the concerns many of us have had about his judgment."