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Starr's Probe Prompts Calls for Curbs

Alleged leaks in Clinton investigation fuel calls for oversight of special prosecutor.

By James Skip ThurmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 24, 1998


The office of independent counsel is not supposed to be a popular post.

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But Kenneth Starr's handling of the investigations into alleged wrongdoing by President Clinton has provoked widespread public disapproval and bipartisan calls for the powers of the office to be reexamined, if not curtailed.

Without mentioning Mr. Starr by name, Jerome Shestack, president of the American Bar Association, last week spoke of Starr's "prosecutorial zeal" and untouchability during a forum held to examine the independent counsel statute.

"Is the special counsel a fourth arm of government lacking any meaningful accountability and realistically immune from removal?" he asked.

Watching the watchdog

Final oversight, or who watches the watchman, has always been a vexing question in a democracy carefully embedded with checks and balances. The the independent counsel statute was enacted in 1978 to ensure impartial investigations of allegations of criminal misconduct by the president and other high-ranking officials. There are no limits on funding. And only the attorney general has the authority to fire an independent counsel, but the political fallout from such a firing makes it unlikely.

"There are no checks and balances in the system," says Abbe Lowell, a former prosecutor who served under the attorney general during the Carter administration. The oversight question is now sharply in focus as at least half a dozen entities seek explanation and accountability of the Office of the Independent Counsel (OIC) for leaks to the media.

"I don't think anyone ever thought before about who would investigate the investigator over anything other than money," says John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University here, pointing to the unlimited funding special prosecutors are given to conduct their probes. Under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, anyone from the prosecutor's office is prohibited from disclosing any information from grand jury proceedings.

Leading the effort to prove Starr's team leaked information to the press is the president's attorney, David Kendall, who has filed a complaint in a federal court, calling on the court to find Starr's office in contempt.

Complaint proceedings are conducted secretly. Under the process, the OIC is required to prepare a written response to the charges and file it with the judge hearing the case.

Meanwhile, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and Sens. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois and Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey also want the Justice Department to investigate the leaks of grand jury testimony.

Moreover, Senator Torricelli and Representative Conyers both suggest that Starr's probe is compromised by conflicts of interest. Starr's law firm once advised Paula Jones's litigation team. Moreover, Torricelli suggests Starr's team has coordinated its efforts with the Paula Jones legal team.