Starr criticizes Reno, defends himself

Independent counsel calls law governing him `constitutionally dubious'

April 15, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Kenneth W. Starr conceded yesterday that Attorney General Janet Reno should have rejected his request to expand his Whitewater inquiry into matters as diverse as the alleged misuse of FBI files and the firing of the White House travel office.

But testifying before a Senate committee that is considering the fate of the independent counsel statute, Starr vehemently defended his sprawling, five-year investigation of President Clinton, even as he endorsed the death of the law that governs it.

Of his investigation, Starr declared, "We did what we felt reasonable, prudent prosecutors would do."

But the statute, which will lapse June 30 if not reauthorized by Congress, "is structurally unsound, constitutionally dubious and -- in overstating the degree of institutional independence [of the prosecutor] -- disingenuous," Starr told surprised members of the Senate Government Affairs Committee.

Taken aback by reports that Starr would oppose a reauthorization of the statute, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, quipped, "I assumed that you would come here today and prevail on this committee, `Stop me before I prosecute again under this unwise statute.' "

Though he did concede mistakes, Starr did not back away from the propriety of his numerous prosecutions. And he flatly declared that he did have authority to indict Clinton once the president leaves office, citing this week's contempt-of-court finding against the president to bolster his case.

Starr's appearance on Capitol Hill was his first since November, when he defended his impeachment report before the House Judiciary Committee.

That time, he elicited a standing ovation from committee Republicans when his testimony ended, as Democrats who had denounced the way Starr had conducted his investigation sat in stony silence.

This time, Starr invited criticism from both parties, as Republicans who favor reauthorizing the independent counsel statute questioned his legislative judgment and Democrats excoriated his prosecutorial judgment.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, questioned why Starr's office should remain in business if the statute governing it is so "abhorrent."

Tactics decried

Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, took Starr to task, saying he abused the gray areas of the statute he now decries.

"In my judgment, despite our best efforts to establish reasonable limits on the power of independent counsels, you and your office have managed to exceed those limits," Levin said. "You've gone beyond what an average prosecutor would do in the investigation of a private citizen, and you have failed to comply with Justice Department policies."

Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, ran through a litany of allegations against Starr and his deputies, from shackling the Clintons' former business partner Susan McDougal to asking the boyfriend of Julie Hiatt Steele's daughter whether he had had sex with Steele, a peripheral character in the Monica Lewinsky scandal whom Starr has indicted.

Torricelli praised a jury in Arkansas that this week acquitted McDougal of obstruction of justice for refusing to answer Starr's questions about the president.

McDougal had explained her refusal by saying she was convinced that Starr was simply out to get the president.

"Twelve Americans came to the judgment that as you balanced her offense against the excesses of power in the hands of the government and the Office of the Independent Counsel, it was time to make a judgment," Torricelli said. "Twelve ordinary Americans finally took a stand and said: `No. Enough.' "

Every barb gets retort

But for every barb, Starr had a retort, and he occasionally showed flashes of anger through a usually placid demeanor. He said he bore no responsibility for McDougal's treatment at the hands of law enforcement officers and the federal prison system.

"I might say: `Why don't we have some more Apache helicopters on the Albanian border?' I have just as much power over the United States Marshal Service as I do over our forces in Europe," he said.

And Starr hotly dismissed many of the Democratic charges as "calumnies" and "absolute falsehoods." The allegation that he was an unaccountable prosecutor searching for any crime avail- able is "an utter shibboleth," he declared.

Still, Starr was forced to make some concessions.

Under questioning from Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, Starr said, "I think, with the benefit if hindsight, it would have been better for the attorney general not to have expanded our own jurisdiction to include the travel office and FBI files and the like."

When Starr took over the Whitewater investigation in 1994, the focus was solely on a mid-1980s Arkansas land deal that Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton had been involved in.

Progression of powers

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