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."
But Democrats had to concede that their attacks had already worn down Starr's public reputation so thoroughly that this latest blow cannot inflict much more damage.
"It's not clear that one more shot at Ken Starr's integrity, even a scathing one, makes any difference at this point," said James Jordan, a spokesman for the Judiciary Committee's Democrats.
A new CBS News public opinion poll suggested that few minds were changed by Starr's testimony. Though 65 percent of those who watched the hearing said Starr did a good job, 60 percent think his investigation was partisan and only 30 percent think Clinton should be impeached.
House Republicans, who once welcomed Dash's role in the Whitewater investigation, came to Starr's defense yesterday, with some dismissing the significance of his ethics adviser's departure and even attacking Dash.
Rep. Bob Barr, the president's fiercest critic on the committee, called Dash's criticism of Starr "utter nonsense" and said Dash's public release of his resignation letter was "a shameless political ploy. I'm ashamed of Sam Dash."
Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said that Starr had merely "complied with the law and provided valuable clarification" with his appearance Thursday and that had Starr not agreed to testify, he would have been subpoenaed by the committee. "I think the public was owed an explanation by the independent counsel to provide some balance to this highly controversial matter," Hyde said.
Committee Republicans actually appeared buoyed by Starr's calmly delivered testimony and by the committee's decision to widen the inquiry by taking depositions from other figures in the scandal.
On Monday, committee investigators will depose Daniel Gecker, the attorney for Kathleen Willey, who accused the president of making an unwanted sexual advance near the Oval Office, and on Tuesday, Nathan Landow, a wealthy Maryland developer and Democratic donor who was suspected of trying to encourage Willey's silence. Landow has steadfastly maintained that he did nothing improper.
Early next month, the committee will depose Bruce Lindsey, the deputy White House counsel, and Robert S. Bennett, who was Clinton's lawyer in the Paula Corbin Jones case.
At a meeting of House Republicans yesterday, Hyde received a standing ovation. Even in light of the Dash setback, committee Republicans held out hope that Starr's credible performance had nudged some wavering House Republicans toward impeachment.
Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a committee Republican who had questioned whether the president committed any impeachable offense, appeared yesterday to come off the fence and now favors impeachment. Graham said that while the president's alleged lying to Jones' lawyers would not warrant his removal from office, lying to a federal grand jury was another matter. Graham practically implored the president to produce facts that could exonerate him.
"If the facts don't change, this is the most overwhelming case for grand jury perjury I have ever seen in my life," said Graham, a former Air Force prosecutor. "And what am I going to do?"
Some other House Republicans seemed swayed as well.
"I watched about eight hours of that [hearing], and I can tell you, that pushed me back across the line toward impeachment," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore, who has been wavering on the issue for months.
But some Republicans were less impressed by Starr's presentation.
Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, one of a handful of Republicans who have said they would likely oppose impeachment, said: "I don't know that it swayed anybody. But I think people see [Starr] as a human being and not as a demon or villain. He never had much of a chance before."
Pub Date: 11/21/98