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Inquiry planned into contacts between Starr, Jones teams; Justice officials to explore whether Reno was misled


WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department has decided to begin an inquiry to determine whether Kenneth W. Starr's prosecutors misled Attorney General Janet Reno about possible conflicts of interest in January 1998 when they obtained permission to investigate the Lewinsky matter, government officials said yesterday.

Among other concerns, the inquiry will focus on whether the prosecutors were truthful when they asserted that there had been no contacts between Starr's office and Paula Corbin Jones' legal team in the weeks leading up to Starr's decision to ask Reno to expand his inquiry beyond the Whitewater matter, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In recent months, documentation has emerged that indicates there were conversations between a prosecutor in Starr's office and a lawyer working behind the scenes with the Jones legal team from November 1997 to January 1998.

But a series of newly disclosed notes taken at the initial meetings Jan. 15 and 16, 1998, between Starr's prosecutors and Justice Department officials shows that the prosecutors flatly asserted that there were no contacts with the Jones team.

For example, Eric H. Holder Jr., the deputy attorney general, wrote in his three pages of notes of a Jan. 15, 1998, meeting with Starr's prosecutors: "They've had no contact with plaintiff's attys."

Handwritten notes by two other Justice Department officials, Monty Wilkinson and Josh Hochberg, who also attended that meeting, corroborate the statements attributed to Starr's prosecutors.

Moreover, notes taken by another participant in the meeting, Steven Bates, a prosecutor in Starr's office, indicate that Jackie M. Bennett, one of Starr's deputies, told the Justice Department officials: "We've had no contact with the plaintiffs' attorneys. We're concerned about appearances."

The notes have become crucial evidence in the Justice Department inquiry, which will be conducted by the Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates prosecutorial misconduct. The lawyers' notes became public last month as part of the Senate record of documents related to the impeachment trial of the president.

The truthfulness of Starr's prosecutors is one of several issues that the Justice Department wants to examine, the government officials said. Lawyers in the ethics office also intend to investigate whether Starr abused his authority to convene grand juries or improperly pressed witnesses, such as Monica Lewinsky, and disclosed secret grand jury information to the news media.

President Clinton's lawyers and supporters have long contended that there was collusion between Starr's office and the Jones lawyers, noting that Linda Tripp found her way to the independent counsel's office through a group of private lawyers who performed legal work on the Jones case. Starr has insisted that his office sought permission from Reno to expand his jurisdiction when he learned of allegations that Clinton's close friend, Vernon Jordan, was helping Lewinsky find a job in exchange for her silence as a possible witness in the Jones lawsuit.

Charles Bakaly, a spokesman for Starr's office, would not comment on the Justice Department plans to start an investigation. But Bakaly said the notes showed that prosecutors supplied the Justice Department with a thorough status report on the then-nascent inquiry.

"I don't know how else to put it," Bakaly said. "There was no misleading of Justice. This was a very fluid, evolving situation. Unlike most public corruption cases, this one was ongoing, felonies were still possibly being committed."

This latest inquiry has exacerbated tensions that have existed between the Justice Department and the office of independent counsel almost since the beginning of the Lewinsky scandal.

At one point last spring, Reno asked her senior aides to research whether she had the authority to discipline Starr in some way that stopped short of removing him, according to a former Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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