• U.S.

Inside Starr and His Operation

16 minute read
Richard Lacayo and Adam Cohen

Kenneth Starr may be the man who can overthrow Bill Clinton, but he is also proof positive that not every baby boomer started out as a little rebel. The son of a Church of Christ minister, the future independent counsel was raised not to drink or smoke. At George Washington University in the 1960s, when the academic dress code was being cracked at every turn, he would show up in class in a jacket and tie. And even as a teenager, when the freedom to be a slob is supposed to seem like one of life’s essential liberties, he liked having everything just so. “By the time he got to junior high, his hobby was polishing shoes,” says his 90-year-old mother Vannie. “He polished his shoes every night, and his daddy’s shoes too, just sitting down on the floor in front of the TV.”

Now Starr is running a different kind of spit-and-polish operation, one using all the considerable means at his disposal to corner the President. It would be easy to frame the contest between them as one in which a straitlaced, no-nonsense prosecutor faces off against a slippery, lubricious President. But Starr’s single-mindedness in pursuit of the Clintons has raised questions about his own propriety. A lot of them are being put out there, of course, by the President’s die-hard defenders, notably by way of Hillary Clinton’s charge that the independent counsel is a tool of the right wing–talk that Starr calls, simply, “nonsense.” But you don’t have to be a conspiracy buff to have trouble with how the Whitewater investigation ended up focused on the President’s pants. Or to feel that, whatever turns out to be true about Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Starr’s own methods are not always easy to stomach. Going after the President’s sex life, wiring Linda Tripp to secretly tape Lewinsky, trying to persuade Lewinsky to tape Clinton–are those the actions of a conscientious prosecutor or a political hit man?

The confusion stems partly from the independent-counsel law itself. Because it provides such wide-ranging powers, it can make even the most scrupulous prosecutor look at times like the Grand Inquisitor. The unlimited budget and open-ended time frame of an independent counsel give Starr’s probe an ominous bulk even when it’s idling in neutral, as it was during much of the year before the latest scandal exploded. “Any federal prosecutor has more resources than the target of his investigation, but other federal prosecutors must assign priorities among investigations,” says Theodore Olson, a former assistant attorney general in the Justice Department who was investigated by an independent counsel for three years, then cleared.

Starr operates out of offices in Washington and Little Rock, Ark., with grand juries seated in both places. He recently seated a third in suburban Virginia, the locale of one of Tripp’s taped conversations with Lewinsky. Critics charge he chose that venue because the more conservative citizens there might produce a grand jury less favorable to Vernon Jordan and Clinton. Starr’s staff includes 20 lawyers who move between Little Rock and Washington as needed, plus about 20 support staff and scores of federal agents who are at his disposal. Even by the standards of Washington, a place accustomed to big, churning investigations, that’s a mean machine. And in a place as small as Little Rock, it’s like a volcano has popped up in the middle of town. During the 3 1/2 years of Starr’s Whitewater probe, hundreds of people there have dealt with Starr through criminal trials, testimony at the downtown federal courthouse–where critics of the independent counsel have taken to calling the grand jury room “the Starr Chamber”–or in meetings at his West Little Rock offices.

Many of them say his tactics there offered a foretaste of the problems being cited in the Lewinsky case. That Starr squeezes little people too hard in his pursuit of bigger targets. That he pushes them to say things they don’t believe. That when all else fails, he plays the sex card. What has Little Rock most unnerved is how he aims firepower against the smallest of players if he thinks they might lead him to Bill and Hillary.

There’s nothing new about tensions between federal prosecutors and locals, especially the ones who are targets of the prosecution. It is after all part of the purpose of U.S. Attorneys to remain aloof from the natives’ habits of mutual back scratching and looking the other way. So at least some of the talk around Little Rock against Starr sounds like sour grapes from a hometown nexus of business, law and government that likes to keep its dealings, including the dubious ones, within the family. Yet there are still some valid questions about prosecutorial overreach.

Starr is an outsider, of course. He lives in McLean, Va., with his wife Alice, a past president of the Chamber of Commerce who works at a real estate management company, and their two daughters, Carolyn and Cynthia. A son, Randall, is an undergraduate at Duke. Starr comes to Little Rock a couple of days each week, dividing his time otherwise between Washington and New York City, where he teaches a law course. And while Starr’s predecessor as Whitewater investigator, Robert Fiske, hired a mix of government prosecutors and private attorneys, Starr leans more heavily toward two-fisted federal attorneys from New York City, Miami and Los Angeles. With no ties to the locals and a single goal–get the goods on Whitewater, whatever they may be, by whatever (legal) means–they are perceived by some to have bombed Little Rock as if it were Baghdad.

Yet for all that, Starr’s biggest catch remains former Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker, who was charged with conspiring, while a lawyer in private practice, in a plan to have Madison Guaranty lend another man $825,000 as part of a questionable real estate scheme. Starr has also won convictions of Webb Hubbell, the former associate attorney general, for bilking his own law firm and clients, and of the Clintons’ former Whitewater partners Jim and Susan McDougal. His last indictments, brought 18 months ago, were against Herby Branscum Jr. and Robert Hill, two officers of the Perry County Bank in Perryville, Ark. Starr charged them with misappropriating $13,000 that he thought might be linked to an attempt by White House adviser Bruce Lindsey, who was then campaign treasurer of Clinton’s 1990 gubernatorial race, to conceal some illegal campaign borrowing. In September 1996 both men were acquitted, though the jury deadlocked on other charges.

It was a major setback to Starr. Branscum’s attorney, Dan Guthrie, a former federal prosecutor himself, complains that Starr applied the full firepower of his office to a case that might ordinarily have been relegated to banking regulators. “No prosecutor’s office anywhere would even take that case,” says Guthrie, who charges that Starr’s office also continually leaked negative stories to the press. “His tenure is a classic example of how not to prosecute these cases.”

In another case, Starr’s office is accused of engaging in a questionable practice that resembles the “talking points” that Monica Lewinsky, acting at the behest of persons unknown, is alleged to have offered Linda Tripp to guide Tripp’s deposition testimony to lawyers for Paula Jones. Steve Smith, a longtime Clinton friend and adviser, is the former president of Madison Savings & Loan, the institution at the center of Whitewater. After being targeted by Starr, Smith entered a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to divert government-backed loan proceeds. But he insists that lawyers on Starr’s staff wrote out a prepared script for him to read before the grand jury. “It contained things I had told them time and time again were not true,” he says. “Any allegation that we prepared a script for Smith to read is false,” says Jackie Bennett, a Starr deputy.

Since the acquittal of Hill and Branscum, the momentum of Starr’s investigation has slowed. Before Monica Lewinsky came along, his best hope at snagging the Clintons was still the claim by David Hale, a former Arkansas municipal judge, that Clinton had put improper pressure on him to okay a loan to Madison Guaranty, a charge Clinton denies. Jim McDougal also denied it before his May 1996 conviction on fraud and conspiracy charges. After that, as part of a deal for a lighter sentence, he changed his story. But that change makes McDougal an admitted perjurer–not the most effective witness against the President in any future trial. McDougal’s ex-wife Susan has spent the last 17 months in a federal prison for refusing to cooperate with Starr.

Then there’s Webb Hubbell. Starr still suspects that Hubbell, who was Hillary Clinton’s former partner at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, knows something about Whitewater that he’s not telling, and that consulting fees to Hubbell arranged by Clinton friends were hush money to keep him quiet. It was Starr’s effort to prove that Vernon Jordan was a hush-money middleman that gave Starr his path into the Lewinsky case. But Hubbell still insists he has nothing to say.

Skeptics say the lull in Starr’s investigation may explain why last year his investigators in Little Rock began circling around Clinton’s sex life, questioning state troopers and women with whom Clinton was rumored to have had contact. Starr said he was using “well-accepted law-enforcement methods” to gather leads. All the same, the theory he was pursuing–that Clinton may have disclosed Whitewater secrets during pillow talk–seems a stretch.

Starr was born by the Red River in Vernon, Texas, on July 21, 1946. In the tiny town of Thalia, his father served as minister while sidelining as a barber to make ends meet. Before Kenneth was out of elementary school, the family, including his older sister Billie and brother Jerry, moved to San Antonio. His mother Vannie recalls that “he was spoiled because he was the baby. I had to get that out of him, and it took me some time to do that.”

In high school Starr discovered politics. He once told an interviewer that some of his earliest recollections are of the Nixon-Kennedy election of 1960. “I really identified with Nixon because of his rather humble roots and the way he worked his way up,” Starr said. “I admired that greatly; I thought that was very much an American dream.”

After high school Starr enrolled at Harding College, a Christian school in Searcy, Ark. But 18 months later, after Harding’s president chided him for criticizing the school’s spending priorities in the college newspaper, he left for George Washington University in Washington. After graduating from there and then from Duke University law school, Starr clerked for then U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger until 1977. He went on to the Washington offices of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, a law firm based in Los Angeles where William French Smith, a friend of Ronald Reagan, was a partner. In 1981, when Smith became Reagan’s first Attorney General, Starr left the firm–and his six-figure salary–to follow his mentor into government, becoming Smith’s chief of staff.

Two years later, Ronald Reagan named him to the prestigious D.C. Federal Appeals Court, a traditional waiting room for Supreme Court nominees, which was the position Starr wanted. During six years on the appeals court, Starr was on the more moderate side of a conservative voting bloc that included Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia at its rightward end. He got a reputation as a consensus builder, ruling against affirmative action and busing but strongly supporting the First Amendment, notably in a high-profile decision favoring the Washington Post when it was sued for libel by Mobil chairman William P. Tavoulareas.

In 1989 Starr made the unusual decision to step down from lifetime appointment to the court to become George Bush’s solicitor general, the lawyer who argues Administration positions before the Supreme Court. As solicitor general, he was considered by liberals to be an improvement over Charles Fried, who had been accused by them of politicizing the job to pursue the Reagan agenda on such issues as abortion, the rights of the accused and affirmative action. All the same, when a seat opened up on the Supreme Court in 1990, Starr was too well known as an opponent of abortion rights, and yet too moderate for the Republican right wing, for the cautious Bush White House to place him on the court. The prize went to David Souter. After Bush lost to Clinton, Starr joined the Washington office of the high-powered Chicago-based law firm Kirkland & Ellis. If he had missed the chance for the Supreme Court seat, he would at least have the compensation of a million-dollar-plus income.

Then came the call to be special prosecutor, and with it instant charges that Starr was too partisan for the job. He was chosen to replace a more moderate Republican, Robert Fiske, following an unusual luncheon attended by Judge David Sentelle, the head of the three-judge panel that named Starr, and conservative Republican Senators Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth, one of Fiske’s loudest critics. Sentelle and Helms have denied discussing Starr’s appointment. By that time Starr had nearly entered the Virginia Republican Senate primary that Oliver North eventually won, and had considered writing a Supreme Court brief supporting Paula Jones’ argument that her case should be allowed to go forward while Clinton was in office. Citing questions about his fairness, the New York Times called for Starr to resign almost as soon as he was appointed.

Even now, however, it’s not hard to find Democrats around Washington who scoff at the idea of Ken Starr as the right-wing avenger. “Not the Ken Starr I know,” says Alan B. Morrison, who co-founded the Public Citizen Litigation Group with Ralph Nader, and has often argued before Starr’s court. What does matter to Starr, he says, is the nature of his suspicions against Clinton. “Ken thinks the President behaved badly,” Morrison says. “In his mind, having an affair with a 21-year-old intern would be bad behavior for anybody.”

Criticism of Starr’s role in the Lewinsky affair begins with his entry into it. He got the authority from Attorney General Janet Reno and a three-judge panel to expand his jurisdiction, but not until days after he had wired Linda Tripp to tape Lewinsky. Starr’s defenders say he was simply pursuing a credible lead that walked in the door. “There’s a pretty decent argument it’s related to what he’s already doing,” says John Barrett, who was an attorney in the Iran-contra probe of Lawrence Walsh. But to Starr’s critics, the wiring of Tripp was outside his legal authority because its connection to Whitewater was so tenuous. Starr also arguably subverted the protections built into the independent-counsel law by making it impossible for the Justice Department to conduct its own investigation, as it is legally required to, before he started taping Lewinsky. “It sounds like the Justice Department was presented with a fait accompli,” says Wake Forest University professor Katy Harriger, author of a book on independent counsels.

Starr’s use of his subpoena powers also strikes some critics as overkill. The parade of witnesses that Starr hauled before a grand jury last week included sympathetic figures like Betty Currie, Clinton’s personal secretary. On Friday Starr also forced Bob Weiner, a spokesman for Clinton’s drug czar Barry McCaffrey, to testify about phone calls Weiner made from his home to Maryland Democrats who want an investigation into whether Tripp broke the law by her secret taping of phone conversations with Lewinsky. “It’s Big Brother at its worst,” Weiner declared angrily on the steps of the Washington courthouse. Starr is also seeking to compel Secret Service agents to testify about what they saw while guarding the Commander in Chief. The Secret Service persuaded Judge Susan Webber Wright last week to block such questioning in the Jones case, on the grounds it would put the President’s safety at risk, and it is arguing that Starr’s subpoenas should be quashed on similar grounds.

Starr’s air of personal probity–he teaches Sunday school in Virginia–can also strike people as self-righteousness. He believes very much in his own moral rectitude–that’s why he was so stunned last year over the outcry when he briefly decided to quit the independent-counsel job and take a deanship at Pepperdine University, which is funded by Richard Mellon Scaife, the billionaire super-Clinton hater. Then there are the problems created by Starr’s continuing private law practice. It earned him more than $1 million last year but also repeatedly put him in a position to deal with various departments of the Clinton Administration on behalf of his clients, even as he held a threat of prosecution over Clinton and his associates–a nice persuader for any lawyer. Notably, Starr has been doing lucrative legal work for cigarette giant Brown & Williamson. In one role he helps the tobacco industry to fend off a threat emanating largely from the White House; in the other he decides how hard to put the screws to that same White House.

Because the White House has decided for now on a no-comment strategy on most of the Clinton and Lewinsky details, the President’s team will be barking all the louder about Starr in the days to come. Their motive may be pure spin, but Starr’s probity and judgment are important all the same because the independent counsel is unusually free of the checks on his power that restrain other officers of government. Even if the pressure on Clinton subsides for a while, Starr can still force the issues against him much further, perhaps even to the point of impeachment. Which is why, with the stakes having climbed so unimaginably high, everyone will be looking more closely now for assurances that the independent counsel is a man whose own methods and motives are unimpeachable.

–Reported by Sally B. Donnelly, Viveca Novak and Mark Thompson/Washington and S.C. Gwynne/Little Rock

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