WASHINGTON -- Hoping to speed his investigation of the Monica Lewinsky matter, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr asked the Supreme Court yesterday to act quickly to deny President Clinton and his top aides any right to refuse to answer questions before a grand jury.
In an unusual request that echoed one made by the Watergate prosecutor nearly a quarter-century ago, Starr sought to bypass the federal appeals court and proceed directly to the highest court for a ruling on the administration's claims of executive privilege and attorney-client privilege.
"This case is of high moment," Starr said in a petition filed yesterday. "It is strongly in the nation's interest that the case be resolved quickly so that the grand jury's investigation can move forward at the earliest practicable date."
The petition comes a day after a federal judge made public her reasons for compelling two top Clinton aides to answer questions they had rebuffed before a grand jury. The White House has appealed that decision.
The filing was one of a series of recent actions by Starr, including a demand for fingerprint and handwriting samples from Lewinsky, which the former White House intern supplied yesterday. The moves suggest that Starr is bearing down, hoping to speed up his inquiry and produce a status report soon.
Saying there is an "imperative public need" for a fast decision on White House claims of executive privilege and attorney-client secrecy, Starr asked the justices to hold a hearing next month to decide the constitutional dispute before they recess for the summer, probably in July.
"This case presents a direct challenge by the Office of the President to the ability of a federal grand jury to obtain relevant evidence of possible criminal activity by executive branch officials," Starr wrote.
Earlier this month, the independent counsel won from Judge Norma Holloway Johnson the right to question the two close Clinton aides, Sidney Blumenthal and Bruce Lindsey, about any Lewinsky-related conversations with the president and among themselves.
In documents released in edited form Wednesday, the judge ruled that Clinton and key aides could assert claims of executive privilege, but that in this case, Starr's interest in the information outweighed Clinton's right to confidential conversations.
Nevertheless, Starr urged the Supreme Court to rule that no one associated with the White House be allowed to refuse to answer questions. He urged the court to declare that the Lewinsky matter involves only private -- not official -- conduct by the president and that no claim of privilege should be allowed.
Starr is investigating whether Clinton lied in denying a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and whether he encouraged her to lie, too. Both Clinton and Lewinsky have denied under oath that they had a sexual relationship.
White House officials said privately that they were not surprised by Starr's request but rejected his comparisons with Watergate. Starr likened his legal battle with the White House to the situation 24 years ago to the month, when the Watergate special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, asked the Supreme Court for a quick ruling against an executive privilege claim by President Richard M. Nixon.
The court ruled unanimously that Nixon was entitled to claim executive privilege but that his claim was outweighed by prosecutors' need for secret White House tapes involving the Watergate affair. The court's ruling led promptly to Nixon's resignation.
"As with Nixon, therefore," Starr wrote, "this case is exceedingly important."
One striking element in Starr's appeal is the disclosure that Clinton himself has asserted some claim, though all information about that claim was edited out of the document. Until now, it has been known only that top White House officials had claimed executive privilege and lawyer-client confidentiality to protect some of their conversations.
The White House did not respond to inquiries about the Clinton claim. But it is known that Clinton has resisted Starr's efforts to question him directly, and it is likely that the president's claim relates to that issue.
Starr's filing coincided with another victory for him yesterday in Johnson's courtroom. She ruled that he could subpoena records of Lewinsky's bookstore purchases.
Rejecting a motion to quash the subpoena -- a motion filed by one Washington bookstore, Kramerbooks, and supported by publishing and civil liberties groups -- the judge instead narrowed the scope of the subpoena. It is not known how she restricted the subpoena, because Johnson sealed her ruling.
Bob Witeck, a spokesman for Kramerbooks, said the bookstore would appeal the decision.
Starr has argued that he needs the bookstore records to examine "the exchanging of gifts" between Lewinsky and Clinton.
Concerned about First Amendment and privacy issues raised by the subpoena, Johnson, in an earlier ruling, said the independent counsel would have to show a compelling need for the records.
But even her granting of a limited subpoena irritated publishing industry advocates. Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, said: "We think the judge is wrong. The threat to the privacy of customers to a bookstore is still a serious matter and it threatens their First Amendment rights."
The Lewinsky investigation moved forward on several other fronts as well yesterday. In Los Angeles, Lewinsky gave samples of her handwriting and fingerprints to prosecutors to be used to validate evidence.
Dr. Bernard Lewinsky, her father, took a swipe at Starr, saying the prosecutor was using his daughter as a "pawn" to try to bring down the president.
Back at the federal courthouse in Washington, Clinton's close friend and confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr. made his fourth trip to the grand jury. Jordan has acknowledged helping Lewinsky find a job in the private sector. Starr wants to know if the job assistance was given to Lewinsky in return for her denial of a sexual relationship with Clinton.
And, for the second time, Starr's team has begun work with a grand jury in Alexandria, Va., a venue available to the prosecutor since Lewinsky worked at the Pentagon, which is in Virginia.
Among other issues, Starr is investigating whether Pentagon officials illegally leaked private information about Linda R. Tripp, the Pentagon aide who turned over to prosecutors secretly taped conversations with Lewinsky.
Pub Date: 5/29/98