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Starr lowers his profile, but investigation continues; Indictment of woman in Va. spurs criticism


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.

Washington lawyer Theodore Olson, a Starr friend and defender, says the independent counsel may be bringing the indictment against Steele because he strongly suspects a Clinton ally "got to her" and persuaded her to change her story about Clinton making a sexual advance toward Willey. If true, says Olson, the threat of prosecution could encourage Steele to disclose any such White House interference.

Steele originally told a Newsweek reporter that Willey confided in her about Clinton's alleged sexual advance. But Steele later changed her story, insisting that Willey had not spoken to her about any unwanted behavior by Clinton and that Willey had asked her to lie to the reporter. Steele's lawyer says that when she realized "it was a bad thing she had done," she recanted.

Willey, for her part, denies asking Steele to lie.

Although Starr, through his indictment, suggests Steele was pressured by someone into changing her story, Olson says it is also possible that Starr has no ulterior motive in bringing charges against Steele.

"If she did what they think she did [lied in sworn statements], that infuriates prosecutors," he said.

In fact, one former prosecutor familiar with the Starr investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it is unlikely Starr is trying to "shake someone loose" at the White House by putting pressure on Steele.

More likely, the prosecutor said, is Starr's desire to protect the integrity of his investigation and the general administration of justice by bringing charges against someone he believes has lied under oath.

What's more, said the source, there is a certain logic to Starr's bringing perjury and obstruction charges against Steele, since he referred to Congress impeachment charges against Clinton based on similar conduct.

"If he's going to refer to the House for the monumental consideration of impeachment of the president of the United States a matter relating to perjury before a grand jury, there's a certain consistency in his bringing charges against others he's just as convinced perjured themselves before a grand jury," the lawyer said. "It undercuts the seriousness of the charges against Clinton if others who are alleged to have engaged in the same conduct are not dealt with."

Coale, Steele's lawyer, believes the independent counsel has brought a mere "grudge indictment" against his client because she "didn't do what Susan McDougal didn't do -- give Ken Starr the information he wanted."

Coale criticized Starr for bringing the indictment when he did -- the very day the Senate opened its historic impeachment trial against the president -- saying the prosecutor clearly was trying to "poison the atmosphere" and "further smear Clinton by reminding people of Kathleen Willey."

Bakaly says the suggestion that the timing of the indictment was calculated to damage Clinton is "absolutely false." Starr, he said, "brings cases when they are ready and based solely on the merits."

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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