White House Lawyers: Public vs. Private Duties

In setback for Clinton, a White House attorney must answer questions in Lewinsky case.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

To what extent should a president's White House legal team - paid for by taxpayers and hired to handle official business - advise the chief executive on private matters?

That question, asked amid the theatrics of the Monica Lewinsky matter, has bearing not only on Kenneth Starr's immediate probe into President Clinton's conduct, but also on future relationships between presidents and their legal counsel.

A new court decision - ordering White House deputy counsel and presidential friend Bruce Lindsey to testify in the Lewinsky matter - may help White House lawyers better define that fuzzy line separating a president's public and private lives.

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The Lindsey ruling July 27 was just one piece of bad news in a couple of bad days for the White House. Ms. Lewinsky has now apparently reached a deal with Mr. Starr, in which she will have full immunity from prosecution for perjury in return for her testimony about her relationship with the president. Breaking six months of silence, she spoke with Starr's prosecutors earlier this week, reportedly saying she had a sexual relationship with the president but not that he urged her to lie about it.

Lindsey has been called before the Starr grand jury several times already, but has refused to answer some key questions, citing lawyer-client privilege. In particular, Starr may seek to know more about Lindsey's role in debriefing witnesses and lawyers about their testimony before Starr's grand jury - a move that critics say goes beyond concern over official White House business. Starr also seeks information about what other involvement Lindsey may have had in the Lewinsky case.

Unless the White House appeals to the US Supreme Court, Lindsey will again face these questions, since a federal appeals court decided attorney-client privilege does not extend to the White House counsel. As employees of the federal government, the court said, they are ultimately accountable to "the public interest in honest government."

Public-private overlap

One argument advanced by White House counsel Charles Ruff is that a president's private and public matters overlap in his office. In that the Lewinsky case, for instance, could lead to impeachment, it affects the office of the presidency and therefore, according to Mr. Ruff, is a legitimate area of work for his office.

Indeed, several of the Clintons' legal challenges, which might have fallen outside the realm of "official" White House business, have become official, with the White House responding to investigations by Congress and the special prosecutor.

It's appropriate for the White House counsel to respond to such queries, says Greg Walden, former associate counsel to President Bush and an ethics adviser to that administration. "The problem I have is the White House counsel being involved from the word 'go' - before there were subpoenas [or] congressional hearings."

In the most blatant example of this, deputy counsel Vincent Foster Jr. worked in the early days of the Clinton administration on a blind trust for the Clintons, their tax returns, and their Whitewater investment. He committed suicide in 1993.

As far as Lindsey's debriefings are concerned, "I don't like it," says Mr. Walden, who has written a book on ethics in the Clinton White House. First, he says, the Lewinsky matter is not official White House business. Second, Lindsey is himself a witness in the case. "If you are wrapped up in an investigation, you should not be debriefing," says Walden.

Former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta defends Lindsey's actions. "Presidents often feel isolated when they confront these kinds of issues, because there are few people they feel they can confide in and not have it appear on the front page of The Washington Post," he says.

Lindsey appears to be one of those few people. "It's a little hard to describe the right and wrongness of it, it's just that is truly the nature of how that relationship works," says Mr. Panetta.

But the July 27 ruling jeopardizes relationships like these. Dissenting Judge David Tatel noted that presidents "may well shift their trust on all but the most routine legal matters" to outside lawyers.

Lawyerly duties

Lawmakers are skeptical of this kind of role for the White House counsel's office, which has a reputation as "the best little law firm in town." This spring they sent several requests to chief counsel Ruff, asking what his legal team actually does. Their complaint was that the White House was stacked with taxpayer-financed lawyers carrying on the president's defense.

Ruff's response was that lawmakers were misinformed. As of March 1, the White House counsel office had 49 workers, he replied in a letter. Fifteen of them were on loan from other government agencies, and 34 were permanent staff.

Most of the staff handle appointment and judicial nominees, legal issues relating to legislation, and ethical guidelines for all White House staff. Seven are assigned to scandal duty (not Ruff's words), handling inquiries coming in from the various investigations facing the White House.

Last year, with a staff of similar size, Ruff says his crew responded to 600 lawmaker requests for documents. Said Ruff in a letter to Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) of Colorado: "We did this with ... a staff that pales in comparison with the 65 White House personnel devoted only to document production during the Iran-contra inquiry."

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