Kenneth Starr, seeking to rehabilitate his reputation, is now portraying himself as a sincere professional trapped by the exigencies of a bad law. In his testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in mid-April, Starr employed the harshest language in a legal scholar’s arsenal– “structurally unsound,” “constitutionally dubious,” “disingenuous”–to describe the statute under which he has operated for the past five years, the Independent Counsel Act.
Florence Graves’s investigative report on Starr’s handling of the Kathleen Willey matter (see page 11), involving Willey’s claim that she was the object of an unwanted sexual advance by the President, is a powerful rebuttal of Starr’s revisionist analysis. Graves offers a case study of the independent counsel’s modus operandi, clearly demonstrating that Starr was so obsessed with pursuing Bill Clinton that he granted Willey unusually sweeping immunity despite substantial evidence–which Starr knew or should have known about–that she was not a reliable witness. Graves reveals that Starr continued the immunity even after other witnesses–and his own investigators–undercut Willey’s credibility. Graves has also learned that when Starr officials administered two lie detector tests, they never asked Willey the question that would have gotten at the truth of her core allegation: “Did the President make an unwelcome sexual advance?”
Rather than question Willey’s motivations and credibility, Starr chose to prosecute Julie Hiatt Steele, a former friend who had said all along that Willey was lying. Graves found four new witnesses who contradict Willey’s story. She also discovered that while Willey was portraying herself as a reluctant witness, she was talking to Janklow & Nesbit, a New York literary agency, about representing her for a memoir discussing the allegedly unwelcome advance.
Starr is still active, perhaps even holding sealed indictments, as Congress debates the future of the Independent Counsel Act. But the problem is not with the act but with the actor. Graves’s investigation shows that Starr’s obstruction-of-justice prosecution of Steele–going to trial in Richmond, Virginia, on May 3–is a massive abuse of power. As former Representative Elizabeth Holtzman noted at an April 19 debate sponsored by The Nation Institute and New York University law school, it was not the Independent Counsel Act that created Starr but “Starr’s tenure [that] turned the act on its head,” demonstrating its potential for partisan abuse.
Starr’s performance is not a reason to allow the Independent Counsel Act to expire in June. Rather, its procedures for appointing and monitoring prosecutors should be reformed. As the corrupting influence of money in politics grows, retaining credible scrutiny of presidential administrations becomes more crucial.
Graves’s investigation makes it clear that Starr can no longer serve as independent counsel. Simplest would be for him to assign all outstanding matters to the Justice Department and resign. If he is unwilling, Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which is already conducting an investigation of his actions, should review the new evidence immediately. So should Attorney General Janet Reno, who under the law may fire an independent counsel “for cause.” There is a role, too, for Congress, which should consider cutting off funding for Starr’s office. One way or another, Starr must go.