WASHINGTON -- As Kenneth W. Starr has demonstrated over and over in the past several months, his role as independent counsel and chief presidential inquisitor did not end -- as many thought it should -- when he submitted to Congress his report of possibly impeachable offenses by William Jefferson Clinton.
Starr has repeatedly inserted himself into the impeachment process, provoking a crescendo of criticism and bewilderment that reached a new peak on Capitol Hill yesterday.
After learning that Starr went to federal court on Friday to force Monica Lewinsky to talk with the 13 Republican House managers who are prosecuting Clinton in the Senate, Democrats and White House lawyers assailed the independent counsel yesterday, calling him the "14th manager of the House team" and questioning his motives.
Speaking during yesterday's question-and-answer session on the Senate floor, White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff suggested that Starr had become "the moving force in the development of the truth and the facts," a role the Constitution had reserved for the senators.
"He has removed the word 'independent' from independent counsel," said Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, calling Starr's actions a "slap" at the 100 senators.
"He is a cheerleader for impeachment. This is another example why Mr. Starr's own ethics adviser resigned from that position. He has put himself too much into this."
As several Democrats pointed out yesterday, Starr has been accused of injecting himself into the impeachment process before -- even by his own ethics adviser, the venerable Watergate chief counsel Samuel Dash.
Dash, in a move that badly damaged Starr's credibility and posture of impartiality, abruptly resigned from Starr's staff in November, one day after the independent counsel testified before the House Judiciary Committee. Dash said the prosecutor had inappropriately assumed the role of an advocate for the impeachment of the president, contrary to what the independent counsel statute calls for.
Starr's report to Congress -- deplored yesterday by Clinton lawyer David E. Kendall as a "one-sided, unfair, prosecutorial summary tied up with a red ribbon" -- also has been attacked by the prosecutor's detractors as a highly partisan document that went far beyond the unbiased presentation of evidence and facts that the law intended.
Starr has repeatedly denied charges that he is an advocate for Clinton's removal from office, saying he is merely seeking the truth.
Asked about his intervention on behalf of the House prosecutors, which resulted in a judge's decision yesterday to allow Lewinsky to be interviewed by the House Republicans, Starr said: "This was something they were specifically requesting, and we're, as I see it, duty-bound to assist the House of Representatives and their managers in the process. It's a Constitutional process under way."
Starr's office offered no additional comment yesterday. But House members defended the independent counsel's actions -- and their own actions in enlisting him.
"We should be allowed to request of the Office of Independent Counsel the opportunity to talk to Monica Lewinsky," said Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, one of the House prosecutors. "It makes me wonder, with all the complaints going, what are they afraid of? Are they afraid of our talking to Monica Lewinsky? We're not doing anything abnormal. We are exercising our privileges, our rights."
Starr's actions in the past few months have given ammunition to Clinton allies who have been arguing for the past year that the independent counsel, a former appellate judge, solicitor general in the Bush administration and Republican Party activist, was part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" to get the president.
For instance, Starr chose the day the Senate opened its impeachment trial earlier this month to bring an indictment against Julie Hiatt Steele, a minor player in the Lewinsky scandal. The surprise indictment -- especially its timing -- fueled suspicions that Starr was trying to poison the atmosphere and further smear Clinton as the impeachment trial opened.
Even Starr's submission of his hefty impeachment report to Congress last fall raised eyebrows. Rather than quietly turning over his evidence to the House, Starr made a theatrical show of his submission, shipping boxes of material to Capitol Hill in trucks in a well-orchestrated, dramatic, made-for-TV moment.
After Starr's 12-hour testimony last fall before the House Judiciary Committee, where he was the sole witness called by the House Republicans, Dash resigned in protest, saying the prosecutor had "unlawfully intruded on the power of impeachment" through his "aggressive" advocacy against Clinton.
Starr's investigation of Clinton -- which began four and a half years ago with a probe of an Arkansas land deal and resulted in Clinton's impeachment on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice surrounding his affair with the White House intern -- has been highly controversial from the beginning.
Some of Starr's tactics -- including subpoenaing records of Lewinsky's purchases at a bookstore and calling her mother as a witness -- have been seen as highly aggressive and intrusive, and have earned him exceedingly low approval ratings with the public.
Starr's defenders -- and the prosecutor himself -- insist he is guilty of nothing more than a political tin ear, not partisan motives. "I am not a man of politics, of public relations or of polls -- which I suppose is patently obvious at this point," he told the House Judiciary Committee.
Observers say all recent signs -- especially Starr's participation in the Senate proceedings on behalf of the Republican House prosecutors -- suggest otherwise.
"He has somehow created an unfortunate impression, one that is really troubling, that he is participating in the impeachment process. That is clearly inappropriate," said Julie R. O'Sullivan, a constitutional and criminal law expert at Georgetown University.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, said that Starr, by extending his role far beyond what the authors of the independent counsel statute had intended, has abused the law in a way that, "in the wildest imagination of the authors, they never intended. What an abomination here, to take that law, which was intended to do one thing and have it now turn into basically a hunting expedition for almost any nugget you can find, disregarding the parameters we tried to put around that statute."
A White House aide said yesterday that Starr had the discretion to turn down the managers' request that he help them enlist the cooperation of Lewinsky. But this was not the first time Starr has played a role in dealing with congressional witnesses.
In June 1995, his office sat in on an interview with former Justice official and Whitewater figure Webster L. Hubbell that was being conducted by the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. At the time, Hubbell was a cooperating witness with Starr under the terms of a plea bargain.
Pub Date: 1/24/99