Long before the accusations of investigative leaks and the surreptitious recording of a former White House intern who said she had an affair with President Clinton, federal agents working for independent counsel Kenneth Starr showed up at a small-town Arkansas high school with a subpoena for the 16-year-old son of a defendant in a Whitewater case.
“It is difficult to convey the kind of pressure it puts on a father when his own children have been subpoenaed to a grand jury,” said Dan Guthrie, a lawyer for the defendant, an Arkansas banker Starr charged but failed to convict in a Whitewater-related case.
To supporters of Starr, including many seasoned prosecutors, such intimidating tactics are the unsavory reality of a criminal investigation. Complaints are rare, they say, when the targets are drug dealers, con artists or mobsters.
But Starr’s use of the recordings, as well as assertions by the lawyer for former White House intern Monica Lewinsky that Starr was pressuring her to lie, have drawn attention to the combative techniques the independent counsel has used in his three-and-a-half-year investigation of the president.
The criticism of Starr reached a new pitch Friday with the most outraged attack yet from Clinton’s lawyer, David Kendall, who said he would move as soon as possible to have Starr cited for contempt of court for what he said was a campaign of orchestrated and pernicious leaks aimed at damaging the president.
Kendall’s attack on Starr put into sharp public focus a battle over Starr’s methods that has been simmering for several years. In that battle, leaks to the press may be the least serious of the abuses of which Starr has been accused by his critics.
For some of the people who found themselves in the independent counsel’s sights, the debate about whether Starr is merely an aggressive prosecutor or one who has abused his vast powers is long overdue.
“For someone to have the power to just go in and tear a person’s life to pieces with no truth, to me that’s wrong,” said Sarah W. Hawkins, a former Arkansas bank officer who was threatened by Starr’s office with a felony indictment that could have meant five years in prison. First cleared by Starr, she was then threatened with a new investigation when she appeared as a defense witness in a Whitewater land development case.
No charges were ever filed against Hawkins, who was once the compliance officer at Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, the financial institution at the heart of Starr’s Whitewater inquiry. But, Hawkins said, the experience was devastating. “When you go through what I went through with the independent counsel,” she said, “it changes your life.”
Several people who have been Starr’s targets described pressure tactics.
Among them were implications that elderly parents would be drawn into the scandal, and theatrical touches like surveillance by plainclothes officers that seemed intent on alerting friends and neighbors that someone they knew was in trouble with the law. And several people who were threatened with prosecution said Starr’s aides had suggested they could get out of trouble if they invented information about the wrongdoing of others, including Clinton.
Starr, who did not respond to a request for an interview, has maintained that his office is operating with high ethical standards.
His aides have suggested that criticism of the investigation comes from Clinton partisans, an accusation that is almost indisputable, because by definition many of the people implicated by the investigation have, or once had, close ties to Clinton.
Prosecutors have always used threats, ruses and pressure tactics. In the Abscam investigation in the early 1980s, a federal agent posed as a wealthy Arab sheik to draw unsuspecting members of Congress before a hidden camera where they were recorded stuffing cash into their pockets and briefcases.
Some experienced prosecutors say the concerns about Starr’s methods arise simply because most people do not know the methods prosecutors use regularly.
“There is a reason to worry about the heavy-handedness of prosecutors, especially in major cases,” said Philip Heymann, a Harvard law professor who was Janet Reno’s first deputy attorney general. “But it is also true that the normal techniques of prosecutors are far more aggressive than most people think.”
Still, even former prosecutors who have been criticized themselves for aggressive techniques said some of Starr’s tactics were troubling.
Thomas Puccio, a defense lawyer who was the chief federal prosecutor in the Abscam investigation, said that Starr’s “wiring” of Linda Tripp to try to capture Lewinsky on tape suggested Starr was using excessive zeal to try to gain evidence of relatively minor offenses.
Starr is believed to be pursuing suggestions that Clinton might have lied in a deposition in the Paula Jones sexual misconduct civil suit about whether the president had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky or might have had Lewinsky lie.
“If an agent went into a federal prosecutor anywhere in the country, and said, ‘I want to wire a witness for an investigation of possible perjury in a civil case,’ the answer would be, ‘No,”’ Puccio said.
One person who was on the receiving end of Starr’s efforts was Stephen Smith, 48, a senior aide of Clinton’s when he was Arkansas attorney general and governor.
Smith pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the investigation for what he acknowledged was a conspiracy to misapply money concerning a real estate deal. He said Starr’s staff lawyers repeatedly tried to get him to provide damaging information about other people that he said was false.
“It was almost like they were writing fiction,” Smith said. “They would come up with these scenarios, and say, ‘Isn’t this what happened?”’ David M. Hargis, a Little Rock lawyer who represented a real estate appraiser who provided testimony for the prosecutors, suggested that some of the complaints came from people who simply failed to negotiate favorable plea bargains.
He said the prosecutors were tough but honorable as they offered his client a deal.
“There was never a misrepresentation,” Hargis said. “They did everything they said they would do.” Hargis’ client, Robert Palmer, was sentenced to evenings of home detention for several months.
The most tangled of the Whitewater stories involves Susan McDougal, the former Clinton business partner who is in the 17th month of a jail sentence for civil contempt. She was convicted of felonies at a trial prosecuted by Starr’s office at which Clinton testified.
Starr has insisted that McDougal be imprisoned for contempt because she refused to respond in a grand jury to the question: “To your knowledge, did William Jefferson Clinton testify truthfully at your trial?”
In an interview, McDougal’s brother, Bill Henley, described a complex public and private campaign by Starr that he said included harassment of McDougal’s family.
Henley, a former Arkansas state senator who runs a legal document service in Huntington Beach, Calif., said he had been the object of surveillance for a long period of time and had been threatened with prosecution.
It has been clear for some time that Starr believes McDougal might be able to implicate Clinton.
But Henley said that Starr was behind suggestions that began appearing in the media last winter that McDougal was once involved in a romantic relationship with Clinton. McDougal’s former husband, James McDougal, was the source of those accounts, which Susan McDougal flatly denied. James McDougal was also convicted in the case brought by Starr and is cooperating with prosecutors.
Henley said James McDougal’s assertions about a romantic connection between his wife and Clinton were invented at the Office of the Independent Counsel. “The OIC has to come up with a reason for why Susan McDougal was silent,” Henley said, “and that was because she was ‘secretly in love with Bill Clinton,’ not because she doesn’t want to lie.”