Starr: Scrap special counsel

Indepdent counsel will urge Senate not to renew statue

Complains of criticism

Clinton investigator has a testimony ready for hearing today

April 14, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Kenneth W. Starr, whose five-year, $46 million investigation of President Clinton sparked fierce criticism of the independent counsel law that governs his actions, will call today for that statute to be scrapped when it expires in June.

The surprise testimony, to be delivered before the Senate Government Affairs Committee, might help defuse an expected barrage of blistering questions for Starr from Democrats who have lambasted him since he launched his Whitewater investigation in 1994.

Starr will say, in effect, that he no longer should be in business.

But in his written testimony, obtained last night, Starr places most of the blame for his problems not on his prosecutorial conduct but on the ceaseless criticism leveled against him by Democrats in Congress and the White House.

In often beleaguered tones, Starr concludes that by the very nature of the statute, any independent counsel is doomed to become enmeshed in the political struggles surrounding his or her investigation.

"Because the independent counsel is vulnerable to partisan attack, the investigation is likely to be seen as political," Starr says in his testimony.

"If politicization and the loss of public confidence are inevitable, then we should leave the full responsibility where our laws and traditions place it, on the attorney general."

Starr will join a long line of officials -- including Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno -- who say the Watergate-era statute has outlived its usefulness.

Congress enacted the law as a means to ensure the independence of investigations of high-ranking officials in the executive branch of government.

But the nonpartisan nature of the independent counsel has long been subject to debate. Republicans excoriated the Iran-Contra special counsel, Lawrence Walsh, in terms just as blistering as those used by Democrats against Starr.

As Starr will testify, "Independence can be misrepresented as antagonism."

But in his most expansive comments to date on his investigation, Starr says he has endured more relentless attacks than even Walsh did.

He complains: "We have seen something more than the norm. Our office was subjected to what the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz has termed `an extraordinary assault on a sitting prosecutor.' "

Starr writes that some of his grand jury witnesses "cowered in anguish" in the carnival-like media atmosphere that surrounded his investigation. Other witnesses, he says, played to the cameras, spreading "falsehoods" about what was happening in the grand jury room.

Critics of Starr's investigation said they were not entirely surprised by his prepared testimony.

Before his appointment as independent counsel, Starr was highly skeptical of the statute, questioning its constitutionality and raising his own objections to the power of an independent counsel with a limitless budget and a virtually limitless investigatory domain.

But Starr had withheld such criticism since he took over the Whitewater investigation in 1994, expanding an investigation of an Arkansas land deal to cover White House deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr.'s suicide, White House travel office firings, the alleged misuse of FBI files and, ultimately, Clinton's efforts to hide his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Cost headed for a record

Those investigations, which continue, are on track to soon surpass the most expensive independent counsel inquiry, the Iran-Contra investigation, which cost taxpayers $48.5 million.

By focusing on the external attacks on his investigation, Starr might be refusing to acknowledge the damage that he brought upon the office of the independent counsel, said Michael Zeldin, a former independent counsel.

By his actions, such as speaking at conservative evangelist Pat Robertson's university and by hiring noted conservative activists, Zeldin suggested, Starr opened his office up to the partisan attacks he decries.

The public relations missteps of Starr and his staff have also been legion, such as subpoenaing Washington bookstores to discover what reading material Lewinsky had purchased, aggressively interrogating Lewinsky, bringing Lewinsky's mother to the grand jury to testify against her daughter and waiting for months to publicly exonerate Clinton for Foster's death, the FBI files controversy, the travel office firings and much of the original Whitewater investigation, critics say.

"He did things as a prosecutor that I'm not certain I would have done," Zeldin said. "But I'm not criticizing him for his prosecution tactics as much as all that he did to make himself vulnerable to political attack."

More-partisan critics are blunter. Lanny Davis, a former White House lawyer and close Clinton confidant, argued that Starr is primarily responsible for the grim fate of the independent counsel statute, which Congress is almost certain to let lapse this summer.

Deft at handling critics

Still, congressional aides said last night, Starr's testimony once again shows that, in person, he is a deft handler of his critics.

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