White House Fame - and Fiscal Ruin?

Subpoenas and legal bills hit Clinton staff.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

White House jobs have long featured low pay, grueling hours, and the thrill of proximity to power.

Lately they come with something else: a subpoena.

As the struggle between the Clinton administration and independent counsel Kenneth Starr escalates, legal summonses are falling on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue like rain. Honchos aren't the only people affected. Low-level workers from stewards to gofers have faced, or will face, a grand-jury appearance.

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To Mr. Starr's office the spread of subpoenas is a normal prosecutorial effort to uncover the truth. But to those on the receiving end, the subpoenas can mean $300-an-hour attorney's fees. A growing number, especially the most junior staff, face personal financial hardship, if not ruin.

"Burden is the key word," says the target of a Starr subpoena, not wanting to be named fearing another subpoena. "The financial hardship is harder for some more than others," referring to limited personal resources.

"Regardless of the fact you are not able to provide anything, you are still hauled in and subjected to the jury and intense media scrutiny," the source says.

The prospect of lingering debt is even worse than the dozens of harassing calls from strangers this source has received since a grand jury appearance. One caller is particularly persistent - a fire-and-brimstone preacher pitching personal ministry sessions with the source, the president and Monica Lewinsky.

This week alone at least half a dozen people with White House connections have been called to testify in the Lewinsky portion of the Whitewater investigation.

They include Ms. Lewinsky's White House supervisor Jocelyn Jolley; Timothy J. Keating, former White House staff director; Marsha Scott, chief of staff in the personnel office; Lanny A. Breuer, a member of the president's legal team, and senior White House aide Sidney Blumenthal.

The Blumenthal subpoena, in particular, has proved controversial. Starr said he summoned the White House aide because he is seeking the source of "misinformation" being spread about prosecutors. The White House responded that such a move was a brazen misuse of power.

Mr. Blumenthal's attorney, Jo Marsh, criticized Starr for "a disregard of other's livelihoods and rights," while complaining of having to run up the clock on her client on a day he was scheduled to testify but didn't.

But she shouldn't have been surprised, say some experts. Subpoenas and grand juries have become as common a part of Washington life as government cars and Georgetown parties.

"It's all part of government service now," in the post-Watergate world of Washington says attorney Stanley Brand, a former general counsel to the House of Representatives who currently represents former Clinton confidant George Stephanopoulous. "You need a wealthy uncle or a legal-defense fund," he says.

Despite the gravity of a grand- jury subpoena, some believe today's White House staffers are incurring high legal fees unnecessarily. Three hundred bucks an hour is a lot to pay, considering the attorney cannot physically accompany or speak for his client in the grand jury room.

"There is a culture in Washington of lawyering up quickly," says John Barrett, now a professor at St. John's University Law School in New York who has five years of investigative experience under his belt working for independent counsel Lawrence Walsh.

"If you are an innocent and you sit down and answer the questions, absent some monster on the other side of the table, there's no real threat," he says.

But believing in a fair shake from an independent counsel is like believing in the tooth fairy, say other legal experts

"Anyone who goes before an adversarial forum where they are likely to be threatened, pressured, and put at risk for what they will say under oath needs to be represented," Mr. Brand says.

Two years ago, President Clinton vowed to help his staff pay for their legal representation. "I'm going to help them pay their legal bills if its the last thing I do and I stay healthy," he told an interviewer.

His spokesman Mike McCurry this week said the president still stands by that statement.

But others close to the president believe as the Clintons' personal legal debt soars past the $3.2 million mark, the president's ability to repay other's debts is diminishing.

Just last week, friends of the Clintons reestablished a legal-defense fund that accepts $10,000 donations and will aggressively solicit funds. But it will cover only the Clintons.

"I can't imagine he'd have any money left over if he was able to pay all his own legal bills," says senior political adviser James Carville. "I think when he said that he probably didn't realize where this was going to end up."

Or perhaps how many on the periphery of the Lewinsky case would be drawn into the web of investigators. Even Washington attorney Vernon Jordan's chauffeur has retained an attorney.

During Mr. Clinton's first term, at least two-dozen staffers ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Hillary Rodham Clinton's former chief of staff Margaret Williams's bill came to $350,000. Adviser Harold Ickes left the administration owing $250,000.

Large numbers of staff from the Reagan and Bush administrations were subpoenaed by the Iran-contra investigation, and parallel congressional inquiry.

"I'm not sure this [current situation] is qualitatively worse," says Barrett.

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