Reno considering special prosecutor to investigate Starr; Justice Department looking into alleged coercion, leaks to press


WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department is considering whether to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct its inquiry into charges of possible misconduct by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, officials said yesterday.

One proposal discussed in recent days is the appointment of a U.S. attorney, possibly one with solid Republican credentials, who would supervise Justice Department prosecutors and FBI agents, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has not reached a decision, the officials said, but her aides have weighed options should she decide to take the investigation away from the Office of Professional Responsibility, the department's in-house ethics unit.

The investigation will focus on whether Starr's prosecutors coerced witnesses such as Monica Lewinsky, leaked grand jury secrets to the news media and withheld possible conflicts of interest from Justice Department lawyers at the outset of the Lewinsky inquiry.

The discussions at the Justice Department follow an exchange of rancorous correspondence between department officials and lawyers in Starr's office. In a letter to Reno last week, Starr criticized what he said were unauthorized disclosures to the news media about the Justice inquiry.

Starr also suggested that the Justice Department could not be trusted to conduct an unbiased inquiry, the officials said. Yesterday, Starr's spokesman, Charles Bakaly, would not discuss the matter.

Starr, the officials said, favors shifting the inquiry beyond Reno's direct control. He prefers the appointment of a lawyer from outside the Justice Department with broad legal experience, someone agreed upon by Reno and Starr.

One person mentioned by Starr was former Attorney General Griffin Bell, 80, who served under President Jimmy Carter. Bell was not available for comment.

Should Reno ultimately refer the matter to an outside counsel, Starr and his prosecutors could be forced to submit to the kind of intense scrutiny that Starr has trained on President Clinton and White House aides since 1994.

There is no provision in the law that permits Reno to seek an independent counsel to investigate Starr's operation. But Justice officials have concluded that under Reno's statutory authority, she could appoint a prosecutor with the power of an independent counsel to convene grand juries and compel testimony under oath.

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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