Making Starr Testify Is Calculated Risk

Democrats seek to make the prosecutor the issue in impeachment hearings.

He's being investigated by a federal judge for leaking grand-jury secrets.

He may have overreached his authority by wiring Linda Tripp - and taping her conversations with Monica Lewinsky - before getting approval to expand his investigation of President Clinton into the Lewinsky affair.

He is seen as politically motivated, consorting with Clinton enemies and filing an impeachment report that's more an advocacy document than a cool presentation of fact.

These and other accusations against Kenneth Starr are expected to get a full airing, now that House Democrats have made clear their intention to make an issue of the tenacious independent counsel during impeachment hearings on Mr. Clinton.

Indeed, when hearings begin after the November election, Mr. Starr may find the roles reversed and himself on the witness stand. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee want to question him about his motives and methods, believing they will weaken the case against the president.

But even if that strategy were to reveal questionable actions by Starr, the Democrats' tactic is nonetheless a risky one, say observers. It could be perceived as a diversionary tactic to shift the spotlight from the real issue - the behavior of the chief executive. What matters now, they say, is not Starr but his findings.

"Unless [Congress] is ready to impeach Starr, whether he's done a bad job or a good job is not the deciding factor," says Abner Mikva, a former White House counsel for the Clinton administration and a Starr admirer-turned-critic.

Another danger for Democrats is the probability that Starr will shine as a witness, having honed his oratory skill arguing Supreme Court cases as solicitor general under President Bush.

"Remember what happened to Ollie North," cautions Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel who investigated the Iran-contra scandal of the Reagan administration. A hostile witness, Mr. North managed to use the witness stand as a soap box, passionately articulating the administration's views on "freedom fighters" in Nicaragua and becoming, to some, a national hero.

Still, it's not only House Democrats who are scrutinizing Starr's performance during his four-year tenure as special prosecutor. US District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson has appointed an investigator to look into possible leaking of grand-jury testimony by the independent counsel. If the leaking is proved, Starr could be held in contempt of court and fined or disbarred.

Meanwhile, US Attorney General Janet Reno is investigating whether Starr misled the Justice Department in his request to expand the Whitewater probe to include Ms. Lewinsky, as claimed by Clinton lawyer David Kendall.

A host of other concerns add up to poor judgment, at the least, critics say. At worst, they may violate Justice Department guidelines and overstep the authority of the independent-counsel statute. Among these are the circumstances of the FBI's detention of Lewinsky, who was discouraged from calling her lawyer, and Starr's decision to call Lewinsky's mother to testify before his grand jury.

As for Starr's pursuit of the Lewinsky matter in the first place, his critics say his motives are suspect. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for one, has characterized Starr as "a politically motivated prosecutor who is allied with the right-wing opponents of my husband."

To some degree, Starr's association with the anti-Clinton camp makes him a magnet for criticism. While on the Clinton case, for example, he appeared with Pat Robertson, a vigorous detractor of the president, for an anniversary of the founding of Mr. Robertson's law school. He accepted, and then declined, a position at Pepperdine University School of Law, whose benefactor is Richard Mellon Scaife, a staunch Clinton foe.

Those who see a politically motivated Starr investigation were boosted by a recent New York Times report that the first tip about a Clinton-Lewinsky liaison came from a Philadelphia lawyer with ties to the Paula Jones case. Like other lawyers connected with the Jones suit, he belongs to the conservative Federalist Society.

STARR'S supporters say his only problem is a political tin ear. His sole intent, they say, is to get at the truth. Starr once said "loss of respect for the truth" is the biggest problem facing lawyers today. Supporters point to his deeply religious nature and his concern for the office of the presidency.

Indeed, this preacher's son has had a distinguished career, working as a federal judge, in the Reagan Justice Department, in the Bush administration, and as a corporate lawyer. Even so, until Whitewater, Starr had never prosecuted a single case.

The independent counsel has his defenders in Congress, but his approval ratings with the public are low - between 23 and 34 percent.

The Starr investigation is "probably more catastrophic for the criminal-justice system than any single person's efforts, ever," says former White House counsel Mikva. That's tough talk from a man who had assured the Clintons that the former federal appeals court judge was a fine choice as independent counsel.

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