Ken Starr Heads to Court Today - for His Other Job

As the independent counsel divides his time, critics decry his work for private clients.

At a federal courthouse in Richmond, Va., today, charges and countercharges will fly between independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the opposing lawyers sitting at the table across the room.

But this case has nothing to do with President Clinton, Whitewater, or even former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Instead Mr. Starr, known to Americans for his four-year, $30 million probe of the Clintons and their friends, will be talking mufflers. That's right, he represents the corporate offices of Meineke Discount Mufflers Inc., a national chain, in a precedent-setting suit against the firm's franchise owners.

The case is the most recent example of how Starr is juggling fast enough to earn at least $1 million a year in his private practice - all the while directing the 43-member staff that is investigating much of the political career of Mr. Clinton.

Now, as the drumbeat continues for Starr to wrap up his several investigations, the extent of his private practice is coming under scrutiny from critics.

"At some point it becomes clear if you are Ken Starr and have spent more than $30 million, that it should be your full-time job and the people deserve your full attention," says Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Other outside activities

The White House has pounced on Starr for the amount of time he has spent preparing for today's court appearance and for some of his other activities, including speeches and teaching a class at New York University Law School.

"I guess Mr. Starr is exerting a new privilege - the Meineke privilege to make a million for himself while spending $40 million in taxpayers' money on an endless investigation," says Jim Kennedy, a White House spokesman.

Previous financial-disclosure reports indicate Starr earned $1.1 million at the law firm of Kirkland and Ellis in 1996. That same year he billed the government for 1,576.5 hours of work. His current big-pocket clients, consuming a lot of his time, include Hughes Aircraft Inc., for whom Starr is handling a US Supreme Court appeal.

Muffler man

In the Meineke case, Starr and his client are appealing a jury decision that requires the corporate office to pay $390 million to franchise owners in a dispute over spending on advertising. The case, which is being argued before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, may set a precedent governing the contractual relationship between franchise owners and corporations.

For Starr critics, the independent counsel's private legal work is only part of the problem. They have also asked whether his past representation of tobacco interests - which Clinton has butted heads with - raises any conflicts. After such criticism became public, Starr dropped Philip Morris from his client list.

"Legally, he is permitted to [maintain his private practice]," says Professor Clark, noting that Congress declared the independent counsel to be a "special government employee" in 1987. The move allows a person who is essentially contracting services to the government to be free of many conflict-of-interest laws that cover other employees. Congress created the distinction in the belief that high-quality independent counsels would be difficult to recruit if they were precluded from continuing their outside careers.

Special prosecutors, on the other hand, perform a similar investigative purpose but serve under different conditions. Starr's Whitewater predecessor, special prosecutor Robert Fiske, was appointed by the Justice Department with strings attached: He had to suspend his personal practice until he finished his probe.

Because the Office of the Independent Counsel has no such restrictions, Starr should be able to continue his private practice, say others. "Every single IC except [Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence] Walsh had a private practice, and that is exactly what the ... law allows them to do," says Georgetown University law professor Viet Dinh, who served as an assistant special counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee.

Starr spokesman Charles Bakaly, moreover, insists his boss is satisfactorily leading the Whitewater investigation. "Ken Starr is a full-time independent counsel," he says.

Even former independent counsel Lawrence Walsh says it's hard to throw a blanket policy over the issue. "The trouble is, not all jobs are alike," he says. "Those who investigate a single individual for a single charge could justify staying in private practice." He cites, for example, a relatively short investigation in 1979 concerning whether Hamilton Jordan, President Carter's chief of staff, had used cocaine.

As Mr. Walsh took the helm of the Iran-contra case, for three months he continued his legal work for Kansas Power & Light, a Wichita utility. The intricacies of the case, he says, made it difficult to hand off.

But even after most of the investigative work of the seven-year Iran-contra probe was complete, and Walsh returned home to Oklahoma City to spend almost two years writing his report, he still devoted all his time to the effort. "I took on no new business whatsoever," he says.

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