Starr reportedly considers indicting president; Prosecutor's office confident of authority to indict incumbent


WASHINGTON -- The independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr, has concluded that he has the constitutional authority to seek a grand jury indictment of President Clinton before he leaves the White House in January 2001, several associates of Starr said last week.

While the Senate sat in judgment on the president, Starr and his prosecutors have actively considered whether to ask a grand jury to indict Clinton before his term expires, said Starr's associates, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

These associates emphasized that Starr had not decided whether, or when, to ask the federal grand jury here to charge Clinton with perjury and obstruction of justice related to the Monica Lewinsky matter.

"He is persuaded by precedent and logic that a sitting president can be indicted," said one associate who speaks frequently with Starr. "But he has given no hint about whether he would do it, either now or sometime down the road."

Before taking such action, Starr would be guided by a number of outside factors, including the impact that a grand jury indictment of the president would have on the nation and the government, said the associates and other friends with whom Starr has discussed the matter.

The associates say that Starr agrees with the conclusion of his office's two constitutional-law scholars, who say that the Constitution and legal precedent provide a prosecutor with the authority to seek the indictment, trial and conviction of a sitting president.

The scholars concluded that the 1997 Supreme Court decision allowing the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit to proceed while the president was still in office greatly increased the chances that an indictment of Clinton would survive a constitutional challenge by the president's lawyers, the associates said.

Charles Bakaly III, the spokesman for Starr, declined to discuss the matter. "We will not discuss the plans of this office or the plans of the grand jury in any way, shape or form," he said.

Although most constitutional scholars think that a sitting president can be indicted, the majority of those who have written or spoken on the subject believe that a trial would have to wait until the president left office.

Lawyers in Starr's office have been poring over the record of the debates within the office of Leon Jaworski, the Watergate special prosecutor, over whether to indict President Richard M. Nixon, both before and after his resignation, the associates said.

These discussions in Starr's office occur at a highly sensitive time. Several Senate votes on procedural issues last week made it all but certain that there is not the two-thirds majority, 67 votes, required to convict Clinton on the two articles of impeachment and remove him from office.

Starr's associates said that neither the outcome of the Senate trial nor the public's wishes expressed in opinion polls would affect his decision.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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