• U.S.

Clinton’s Crisis: Is The Prosecutor Running A Starr Chamber?

3 minute read
Adam Cohen

A week ago, Ken Starr was just another lawman who had spent three years and $30 million poking into bad Arkansas land deals and finding little. But suddenly, the man who put Susan McDougal behind bars and cracked the “Castle Grande” scandal has hit pay dirt. A sob sister wired for sound has done what years of dutiful subpoenaing couldn’t: lay bare the Clinton Administration to paralyzing scrutiny. That seeming triumph, however, has only reignited a fierce debate that has dogged Starr from his first days as Whitewater special prosecutor.

Prosecutors are supposed to be above the political fray, but Starr has always had trouble fitting the model. There was controversy from the start. He was chosen after U.S. Judge David Sentelle, the Republican who headed the three-judge panel that appointed him, was seen at lunch in the Senate dining room with Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth, the conservative Republican Senators from North Carolina. Sentelle denied they had talked about Starr or the Whitewater prosecutor post.

Starr also came with a luggage cart’s worth of political baggage. He once considered challenging Oliver North in Virginia’s Republican Senate primary. He nearly filed a court brief for Paula Jones in her sexual-harassment suit against President Clinton. And even while serving as special prosecutor, Starr has continued to represent private clients with a conservative political agenda, including the tobacco industry. In September 1996, PBS anchorman Jim Lehrer asked Clinton if he thought Starr was out to “get you and Mrs. Clinton.” Clinton answered, “Isn’t it obvious?”

Critics see in Starr’s latest foray evidence of ax grinding. Sex close to the Oval Office is, after all, a far stretch from Arkansas land investments. “The idea of taping someone who may have had a relationship with the President in order to prove a pattern of dealing with witnesses has such an attenuated connection with Whitewater [that] it’s high-tech Columbo,” says University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein. In his view Starr, whom he otherwise respects, is “so fixated on the task of investigating Clinton that he’s lost all perspective on what the appropriate role of a prosecutor is.”

Defenders of Starr’s actions say the Lewinsky probe does flow legitimately from his Whitewater charge. He was duty bound, they say, to follow a pattern of obstruction of justice wherever the evidence led him. As for suggestions of opportunism, Starr may have hurt himself by taking on a frustrating job and the withering attacks that go with it. Starr could have been an Attorney General or a Supreme Court nominee, says New York University law professor Stephen Gillers, who believes those prospects are now unlikely. “I’ll give 3-to-1 odds,” says Gillers, “Ken Starr wishes he had never accepted this assignment.”

–By Adam Cohen. With reporting by Andrea Sachs/New York

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