To Starr, a pattern of 'obstruction'

In his testimony before House panel, the counsel rails against Clinton's blocking maneuvers.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

To independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, the case for impeaching President Clinton rests on more than his effort to hide an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Instead, it depends crucially on a broad context of behavior by the president and his associates, who have battled Mr. Starr's office like Spartans on every front.

By Starr's count, he has been forced to go to court 17 times to fight White House blocking maneuvers, such as claims of executive privilege. Federal courts decided all 17 cases in favor of the independent counsel.

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"The pattern of obstruction of justice, false statements, and misuse of executive authority in the Lewinsky investigation did not occur in a vacuum," asserted Starr in his historic appearance yesterday before the House Judiciary Committee.

As he spoke publicly and in detail for the first time about the long work of his investigation of the president, Starr was conscious that most Americans and many members of Congress seek to wrap up the impeachment proceedings against Mr. Clinton.

Indeed, he sounded somewhat defensive. "I am not a man of polls, public relations, or politics - which I suppose is obvious at this point," read Starr's prepared statement for the House Judiciary Committee.

Instead, Starr described himself as "a product of the law" - a man possessed of "an unyielding faith" in the US court system.

Countering charges by committee Democrats that he is an overzealous prosecutor aiming to bring down the president, Starr was adamant that neither he nor his staff relished the job of investigating Clinton. "No prosecutor is comfortable when he or she reports wrongdoing by the president," he asserted.

Yet, according to Starr, there was much wrongdoing to report.

A criminal coverup?

In his prepared testimony, Starr was adamant that Clinton and his associates have participated in a criminal coverup of the affair between the president and the former intern.

Between late 1997 and summer 1998, Clinton had six opportunities to tell the truth about the nature of his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, said Starr.

"On all six occasions, the president chose deception - a pattern of calculated behavior over a span of months," he said.

The fact that the matter originally arose in the context of the Paula Jones investigation does not lessen the seriousness of the behavior, said Starr. It is true that the Jones matter was a civil case alleging sexual harassment on the part of Clinton, which was dismissed by the courts, and has subsequently been settled. But a plaintiff in a sexual-harassment lawsuit is entitled to obtain truthful evidence, he insisted.

The Starr investigation began four years ago as a probe into the Clintons' dealings in the failed Arkansas land deal called Whitewater. Starr chose not to make any charges of possible impeachable offenses stemming from Whitewater. Clinton's defenders point to this as evidence that the independent prosecutor subsequently went far afield in his pursuit of the Lewinsky matter.

In his testimony yesterday, Starr revealed that he did, indeed, draft a report of possible impeachable activities related to Whitewater. He did not send it to Congress, after his office judged the evidence insufficiently strong.

Yet Starr was biting about the president's actions in this and other matters. He suggested that $550,000 in consulting fees for Clinton's associate Webster Hubbell was an effort to buy Mr. Hubbell's silence. And he criticized public comments by Clinton which could be construed as encouragement to Whitewater figure Susan McDougal to maintain silence in the face of a court order for her to testify.

Legal work vs. politics

Starr's pursuit of presidential wrongdoing also reveals a clash between plodding legal work of the independent counsel and the politically charged impeachment process in Congress, say experts. "What we have learned is that the investigation of the president is inevitably a political event, and it cannot be done by a traditional prosecutor," says Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York University.

Central to the frustration expressed by all sides in the impeachment debate - including Starr - is the 20-year-old independent counsel law, reauthorized by Congress with Clinton's backing in 1994. Criticism of the statute's broad jurisdiction and low triggering threshold will lead to a major debate over the law when it again comes up for renewal in June 1999, experts and lawmakers say.

As it stands now, however, the law sets up a problematic disconnection between politics and the law. On one hand, it assigns to an independent counsel the nitty-gritty prosecutorial work of gathering evidence of impeachable offenses. Yet it is the House of Representatives that must decide, in a heated political atmosphere, what an impeachable offense is.

"The error we've made is to give to the law-enforcement branch of government the duty of investigating what is, at bottom, a political judgment," says Mr. Gillers. One solution, he says, would be to return to the House full responsibility for investigating the president and vice president by excluding them from the independent counsel statute.

Yesterday, this dilemma was personified by Starr, as the prosecutor described as "the incarnation of a lawyer" stepped out of his familiar courtroom and into a politically polarized Capitol Hill hearing room.

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