Clinton Lawyer Says Starr Should Step Down as Independent Counsel
WASHINGTON (AP) _ One of President Clinton’s private lawyers said today that Kenneth W. Starr, the newly appointed independent counsel, should voluntarily step down from the Whitewater investigation because of his partisan activities and positions.
″Any decision he makes is already compromised,″ said Robert S. Bennett, who represents Clinton in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former Arkansas state worker.
Bennett said the public wouldn’t have confidence in any negative finding by Starr ″because of the baggage he picked up″ since Attorney General Janet Reno considered him for the Whitewater counsel’s role. She gave the job instead to Robert W. Fiske Jr. - like Starr a Republican - who was replaced Friday by a special federal court panel.
The White House refused to say whether Clinton agreed with Bennett, or whether he gave his attorney the go-ahead to second-guess the appointment.
″The president supports this process. The process gave us a new independent counsel and we will cooperate fully,″ White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said. She noted that Clinton signed the new independent counsel bill into law.
White House aides have privately concurred with Bennett, saying they are worried about Starr’s partiality.
Starr had considered filing a friend-of-the court brief supporting the position of Paula Corbin Jones, who contends that a sitting president does not have immunity from a lawsuit. Bennett argues Clinton has such legal protection.
Bennett said in an interview he has known Starr for years, and has ″a high regard for his intellect and integrity.″
But Starr’s background is political. He was a top Justice Department official in the Reagan administration and solicitor general under President Bush.
″He should exercise the good judgment of stepping down,″ Bennett said. ″Any decisions he makes are going to be questioned on whether they’re merit-based. The big danger is on a close call.″
House Speaker Thomas Foley said today Starr has a ″reputation for integrity and fairness.″ At the same time, he called the appointment ″a bit surprising,″ given that the former judge and Republican political appointee had established a ″somewhat partisan position″ when he once investigated the possibility of running for office. Foley also referred to ″this other matter,″ evidently a reference to the controversy over whether a president may be sued while in office.
The White House also is miffed that a new prosecutor will take over the Whitewater investigation, possibly starting from scratch. ″Enough is enough,″ declared Chief of Staff Leon Panetta.
The concern expressed publicly by Clinton’s aides is that Starr will replow the ground covered by Fiske. They say that would be a waste of time and money.
″I would hope the three-judge panel took all this in consideration with their appointment,″ Panetta said Sunday. ″I would hope that he would proceed on the basis of fairness and objectivity and he won’t let these factors influence his investigation.″
Appearing on ABC, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine expressed what White House officials are only saying privately. ″There is a heavy burden now on Mr. Starr to be fair and impartial as he says he will be,″ Mitchell said.
In a related development, Panetta also voiced the strongest show of support yet for Treasury Department officials who are under fire for giving Congress misleading or contradictory statements about their contacts with the White House over Whitewater.
″We’re going to stick with them,″ he told NBC, without ruling out their resignations.
A three-judge federal court panel removed Fiske as special counsel Friday, saying Reno’s appointment raised questions about his independence. Fiske had already determined there was no foul play in the suicide of Clinton aide Vincent Foster and reported no criminal wrongdoing in the way White House and Treasury officials sought to control public relations damage from Whitewater.
Starr could reopen those issues before moving on to the broader Whitewater affair, addressing questions about a failed Arkansas savings and loan and a related land deal of the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
″It is up to him, but human life being as short as it is and political terms beings as short as they are, I would think if he goes back to the very beginning, this will never be done,″ White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler said on ABC.
″I hope we don’t tramp over old territory time and time and time again,″ Panetta said. ″We have nothing to hide in this situation, but we would hope there is a point at which enough is enough.″
Without criticizing the court, Cutler said he disagreed that Fiske’s independence was in question.
″I think it’s a waste of time and taxpayers’ money, but I have every confidence in Kenneth Starr,″ he said.
Starr said Saturday he will be ″fair and objective and evenhanded.″ He said he did not know whether he will simply review Fiske’s work or restart the investigation.
Turning to the fallout over Fiske’s inquiry, Panetta reiterated Clinton’s support for Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman and Treasury aides Jean Hanson and Joshua Steiner. Their testimony drew barbs from Congress, putting their jobs in jeopardy.
″They have done a good job for this administration,″ he said.
But pressed about potential casualties as a result of the contentious hearings, Panetta left room for a resignation or two. ″Everybody serves at the pleasure of the president. Everybody makes up their own mind as time goes on.″
Asked about Altman, Cutler said Clinton and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen ″hope he will be able to continue.″
″I think Bentsen ought to fire Altman,″ Hanson and Steiner, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said on CBS’ ″Face the Nation.″