Starr lowers his profile, but investigation continues

Indictment of woman in Va. spurs criticism

January 13, 1999|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After years of appearing front and center in the role of President Clinton's chief nemesis and inquisitor, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has receded to the sidelines as the case against presidential wrongdoing moves to the Senate.

But he has made it clear that he is not going away.

Like a trick candle that flares again and again, Starr continues to assert his authority, press his case and remind the White House of his ongoing inquiry and the threat it poses. His operation is expected to outlive the impeachment proceedings, and possibly even the Clinton presidency.

Just last week, on the day the Senate opened its impeachment trial against the president, the independent counsel vied for a share of the headlines, bringing a four-count indictment against a minor figure in the Lewinsky scandal, Julie Hiatt Steele.

Steele is the Virginia woman who originally backed up Kathleen Willey's assertion that Clinton made an unwanted sexual advance toward her and later said she had lied at Willey's request. Steele is the first person to be indicted by Starr in the Lewinsky matter.

The indictment sparked criticism from some who questioned both the timing of the Steele charges and Starr's motives in bringing them against such a tangential figure.

"To what end?" asks Michael Zeldin, a former independent counsel and prosecutor, about the Steele charges. "I don't see where Starr is going with this investigation. He should never have made his original referral to Congress if he's going to make a secondary referral. My view of independent counsels is, once they make their referral, they should really be closing down."

Indeed, the recent indictment of Steele -- on three counts of obstruction of justice and one of making false statements -- has prompted much bewilderment and speculation about just what Starr is after now that he has referred to Congress a case for impeachment of the president.

Is he trying to shore up a case against Clinton for possible indictment once the president leaves office, if not before? Is he seeking evidence for possible indictments of other White House officials? Could he envision sending an additional impeachment referral to Congress? Or is he merely tying up loose ends by bringing charges against those players -- however insignificant -- who he believes lied to his grand jury?

Aside from the Steele matter, Starr still has three cases related to the original Whitewater investigation: one against the Clintons' Whitewater partner Susan McDougal for criminal contempt and obstruction of justice; a case against former Justice Department official Webster L. Hubbell for making false statements to bank regulators and Congress, and an appeal of a tax fraud case that Hubbell won in district court.

Starr spokesman Charles Bakaly said recently that the entire investigation could continue two more years. But some familiar with the investigation believe Starr, whose 4 1/2-year probe has resulted in the conviction of 14 individuals so far, will step down once those remaining cases are tried. He would turn over to another independent counsel any legal appeals that result and the final report-writing that is required.

In sending his referral to Congress in September, Starr said he found no evidence of impeachable offenses by Clinton in his investigations of the firing of White House travel office personnel or White House acquisition of FBI files on hundreds of people. As for the Whitewater land deal, he said he found evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton, but none that he felt he could prove with certainty.

He later sent Congress evidence in the Willey case but concluded that it did not deserve to be a separate impeachment charge.

Those familiar with Starr's investigation say that since the impeachment process is already well under way it is unlikely he would refer additional evidence of possible high crimes and misdemeanors to Congress unless he came across startling new information.

Instead, some believe the surprise indictment against Steele suggests Starr is planning to bring an indictment against Clinton after the impeachment proceeding is over. "If he can foul up Julie Steele's credibility, he has a better shot at that," says Steele's attorney, John Coale.

Bakaly has said Starr has not ruled out prosecution of the president, either before or after he completes his term. Constitutional lawyers differ over whether a president can be indicted while in office.

The pending cases against McDougal and Hubbell present Starr with the opportunity to gain more incriminating evidence against Clinton regarding the Whitewater land deal.

Some familiar with Starr's investigation believe it is unlikely the prosecutor would bring an indictment against the president for his actions in the Lewinsky matter, the same conduct he is now being tried for in the Senate, especially if Clinton is acquitted or censured. Any Washington jury, after all, would be well aware of the facts of the case and the outcome in Congress.

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