Clinton Trial: Starr to face a formal inquiry

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The Independent Online
AS BILL CLINTON'S trial finally draws to an end, the next person to find himself under fire in Washington could be Kenneth Starr, the man who led the initial investigation.

The US Justice Department has informed him and his colleagues that they will be the targets of a formal inquiry into their behaviour. The possible charges include allegations that they broke legal rules and lied in their zeal to prosecute the President.

Behind the charges is a belief among Mr Clinton's allies that Mr Starr and his team were part of a group of right-wing lawyers who had decided to nail the President come what may. Mr Starr was chosen as independent counsel after a lunch between a senior US judge and two right-wing Republican senators. But there is also wider concern that the very idea of an independent counsel is deeply flawed, and President Clinton's impeachment may be the last time that it it used in its present form.

Mr Starr, a former official in Ronald Reagan's administration, was appointed to investigate Whitewater, an alleged financial fraud in Mr Clinton's home state, Arkansas.

That led him to look into the President's private life and the sexual harassment suit brought by a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones. But the Justice Department wants to find out exactly how close he and his staff came to the lawyers representing Ms Jones. The prosecutors said they had no contacts, but there is evidence that they did.

The Jones case then led Mr Starr to look at other cases of Mr Clinton's sexual behaviour, including his relationship with the former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The Justice Department is also interested in an offer of immunity allegedly made to Ms Lewinsky on condition that she did not contact her lawyer, which is in breach of US legal rules.

The US Attorney General, Janet Reno, told Mr Starr a month ago that he would be investigated, although the charges go back a year. If he is found to have breached the rules, he would be removed from office.

Mr Starr's defenders, who see him as the doughty guardian of the Constitution, regard Ms Reno's decision as a partisan attempt to undermine the case against the President. Mr Starr's office is also reportedly ready to counter-attack, and is said to be considering whether it can indict Mr Clinton - press criminal charges against him - while he is in office. The long saga of the past year has been about impeaching him and removing him from office, but Mr Starr's staff are said to have concluded, based on "logic and legal precedent", that they can also take the President to court for perjury and obstruction of justice.

When reports surfaced two weeks ago that they were considering this, it caused a fresh outcry. Democrats and the President's lawyers said it was another leak from Mr Starr's office; but the prosecutor and his staff denied they were the source of the report.

This endless toing and froing over Mr Starr is partly a product of politics and partly of legal strategy, but it also reflects a near-universal realisation here that the law establishing independent counsels is deeply flawed.

Mr Starr is likely to be the last appointed on this basis.

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