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Going After Starr's Camp

Clinton's defenders are getting personal in covert attacks on Starr's team, and it's making him mad

By Michael Duffy/Washington

TIME magazine

(TIME, March 2) -- The clandestine war began quietly: telephone calls from out-of-town lawyers who urged reporters to look at this old federal case or that sealed police report. Next came the mystery faxes, great piles of inky black clippings, detailing the dubious investigative habits of the men who work for Kenneth Starr. And then last week the doors came off the hinges, as longtime Washington sources speaking only in exchange for anonymity offered tips, telephone numbers and spicy quotes that promised, as one did, that "Ken Starr's office is completely imploding."

Just when Bill Clinton's White House was girding for battle against Saddam Hussein, a much more covert war against Starr was already under way. Tactically, it was clever: defense lawyers were using Starr's own invasive tactics against him, bringing up the workplace and sexual histories of the prosecutors who themselves were dredging up the workplace and sexual history of the President. And it seemed to be working: just as the probe was supposed to be heating up, two of Starr's top lieutenants, Bruce Udolf and Michael Emmick, were being kept busy just defending themselves from charges of legal and other misconduct--and Starr surely had to appreciate this irony, didn't he?--resulting from a carefully orchestrated campaign of damaging leaks.

But Starr is not an ironist, and by late last week lawyers involved in the case predicted that Starr might launch an obstruction-of-justice inquiry against White House officials--for slowing Starr down by maligning his attorneys. "There is clearly a pattern of this. It is designed to undermine the investigation," a lawyer close to the case told TIME. "And they're going to get proactive."

Getting "proactive" is exactly what got this war going in the first place. Even before the independent counsel seized on Linda Tripp's taped evidence, in mid-January, of an affair between the President and Monica Lewinsky, the White House and its allies had played up Starr's G.O.P. credentials. But their efforts to demonize the independent counsel as a reckless zealot haven't stuck. And so the White House has recently pushed hard the idea that Starr has gathered around him an army of prosecutorial cowboys with less-than-perfect records in places like Miami and Los Angeles. Sometime last month, the Administration, lawyers for other witnesses and just about everyone else in Starr's sights decided to make "the cowboys" the enemy. Starr's critics are relying on cases and conduct that are, in some instances, 10 years old. But that may not matter. "The real fight," said a lawyer working full time on the counterattack, "will take place in the press, not in the courtroom."

Exhibit A is Udolf, a career federal prosecutor in the Justice Department's Miami office on loan to Starr in Washington. It was Udolf who helped negotiate the immunity deal with Monica Lewinsky that Starr has backed away from. But it was Udolf's role in a 1987 Georgia case that had Starr's office in confusion last week. In that case, he was found to have violated a defendant's civil rights when he was Georgia state prosecutor. The defendant, Ronald Reeves, was arrested on a weapons offense, held for several days in jail without being charged, and was denied the chance to call his lawyer or his wife. A jury later found Udolf had "maliciously and arbitrarily" violated Reeves' civil rights and awarded Reeves $50,000 in damages. "I accept responsibility for that, and I regret it," Udolf said last week.

The Reeves case could resonate, Starr's critics say, because it is not the only time one of his deputies has tried to block a defendant's right to counsel. Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, has accused Starr deputy Emmick of violating his client's rights when Emmick resisted her attempts to contact an attorney in January during a meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. At the time, Lewinsky wanted to call Frank Carter, the Washington lawyer provided by Clinton's friend Vernon Jordan, but FBI agents working for Starr and Emmick warned her that such a call would end her chances at immunity. A source close to the investigation told TIME that Lewinsky was never actually barred from calling Carter and adds that she was not entitled to a lawyer anyway; no charges had been filed against her.

Yet those incidents were just a few of the stories circulating last week about the all-Starr team, suggesting that someone, perhaps allied with Clinton, had hired a private investigator to excavate the dirt on the independent counsel. A top Washington sleuth who may be looking into Starr's camp or its possible connections with Clinton's enemies is Terry Lenzner of Investigative Group International, who worked for the Democratic National Committee last year. In a brief interview, Lenzner denied that he was probing Starr, but before TIME could ask if he was investigating Starr's lieutenants he said, "I'm not going to answer any more questions," and hung up. At the White House, spokesman Mike McCurry denied that anyone in the Administration or on the President's legal team had hired private investigators to check up on Starr's prosecutors.

Denials could be heard elsewhere last week as more Clinton aides turned up in the grand-jury room. Up to now, Starr's strategy has been take-lots-of-prisoners. But with the notable exception of Lewinsky's mother Marcia, most of the people Starr brought before the grand jury have been small fry, White House stewards and Lewinsky-level junior aides. With last week's appearance by Bruce Lindsey, Clinton's closest adviser and top secret keeper, the independent counsel is going right for the President's inner circle. And so in addition to attacking Starr, the White House mounted a serious immune response, which may include the tricky claim of Executive privilege to shield Lindsey and other top aides from Starr's questions.

A man who knows the meaning of the word confidential, Lindsey is Clinton's one-man inner sanctum, privy to his thinking on everything from Saddam Hussein to the bimbo eruptions that Lindsey helped contain during the '92 campaign. He also helped prepare Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones case last month and might know something about the talking points that Lewinsky is supposed to have given to Tripp to guide her testimony in the Jones case.

But after spending five hours before the grand jury on Wednesday, Lindsey returned the next morning with a flying wedge of 10 White House-friendly lawyers to argue with Starr's side over just which conversations Lindsey would be compelled to discuss. Clinton claimed Executive privilege on Friday, and Starr, the former Solicitor General, will fight the claim all the way to the Supreme Court. The Justices have attempted to define the scope of that privilege before, acknowledging the right of a President to shield some conversations, but not if they involve matters subject to criminal investigation. Clinton is also claiming that some conversations fall under the attorney-client privilege. But that defense has problems too. After Hillary Clinton attempted to use it in a Whitewater-related case last year, a St. Louis, Mo., appeals court ruled that it does not cover conversations with White House lawyers, only private attorneys.

Starr was poised, meanwhile, to flank Clinton on other fronts. Last week his team persuaded former Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker to plead guilty in Little Rock to fraud in exchange for helping Starr with his probe of Clinton's Whitewater finances. Clinton and Tucker, onetime rivals, met at the White House in late 1993, just days before both men were named by federal banking regulators in criminal referrals to the Justice Department. Starr would like to know what the two men talked about in that session; both have described it as routine.

For the White House, the get-Starr strategy is not without risk. After Clinton met early Saturday morning with Harold Ickes, a now outside adviser helping him through the Monica mess, officials sought to distance the President from the covert attacks on Starr's operation. They even hinted that Udolf and Emmick, who just hours before were the targets of a mad round of telephone calls to reporters from Clinton allies, were actually more reasonable than others on the Starr payroll. A White House official watching it all said privately that he was careful to avoid any discussion of the counsel's personnel and methods, fearful that Starr might serve him and others with a subpoena for obstruction of justice. "I am not getting near that," he said.

Even if the White House retreats a bit in the weeks to come, the alleged excesses of Starr's team will remain front and center. Democratic lawmakers are poised to turn up the heat on Attorney General Janet Reno this week, urging her to launch a probe into alleged leaks from Starr's office. Meanwhile, lawyers for Lewinsky have asked Reno to conduct lie-detector tests on Starr, Emmick, Udolf, Jackie Bennett and another trusted aide, Bob Bittman, to see if they have leaked privileged information to reporters. "These guys don't play by the rules," said a defense attorney. But in the unholy war between Starr and Clinton, there are no rules.

--With reporting by Jay Branegan, Viveca Novak and Michael Weisskopf/Washington
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: March 2, 1998

Clinton's Crises: Selling The War Badly
Clinton's Crises: Twin Perils Of Love & War
Parade Of The Dead Babies
What Jordan Knew
Going After Starr's Camp
Monica's World
Essay: Ye Olde Town Gimmick
Calvin Trillin: Rudy Giuliani, Proctor of New York
The Notebook: "...a simple, innocent explanation?"

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