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He Crawled from the Deep: Ken Starr and Whitewater
As with mosquitoes, horseflies, and most bloodsucking parasites, Kenneth Starr was spawned in stagnant water.
The independent counsel first emerged on the national scene in 1994 to investigate Whitewater, a failed Arkansas land deal that dated from 1978 in which the President and the First Lady had the misfortune to lose an investment of $42,000. With the craven aid of a tightly knit gang of right-wing operatives, Ken Starr came forth like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, hell-bent on terrorizing the inhabitants of Little Rock in a single-minded quest to defame the President of the United States.
And so before we look at Starr's more recent deceptions, intimidations, and screwups, it's important to revisit this old Arkansas haunt for a spell. Like me, most of you have heard so much mind-numbing blather about Whitewater, the last thing in the world you want to do is take a trip back there. But bear with me here, because the origins of the Whitewater scam shed light not only on the early stages of the anti-Clinton media madness, but also on the independent counsel's countless conflicts of interest since the first days of his appointment. Over four years and $40 million after he first started peeking under stones in Little Rock, the only thing Ken Starr ever exposed was himself: the fact that his investigation was an absolutely baseless, politically contrived, right-wing-backed, taxpayer-subsidized smear campaign from the get-go.
According to the original article that let the monkey out of the cage (written by Jeff Gerth for the New York Times in 1992 and widely promulgated since by the Times, the Washington Post, and other purported bastions of national journalism), the Whitewater story goes a little something like this: In 1978, the Clintons, along with old friends Jim and Susan McDougal, invested some money in a real estate deal in the Ozark Mountains. When it turned out that the McDougals had no capital, then Governor Clinton may or may not have helped to secure a $300,000 loan for his business associates so they could attract more investors to the land deal, which, along with that original loan, eventually tanked.
Some have speculated -- wrongly -- that $50,000 of this bad loan went toward covering the Clintons' interests in Whitewater. Further baseless speculation claimed that Hillary Clinton, then an attorney for the Rose Law Firm, may have cooked the books on the Whitewater deal in order to cover up any evidence of Clintonian wrongdoing regarding that loan. Of course, there never was, nor has there ever been, any evidence of malfeasance by either the President or the First Lady. But that didn't stop the scandal-hungry media and Clinton-hating Republicans from crazy-legging for the end zone with the fable.
Sometime after Gerth's confused and confusing 1992 newspaper piece, the national press went into full-froth mode. While the Sunday morning pundits professed their shock and indignation for the television cameras, every major newspaper, magazine, and news program in the country sent its crack journalists to Little Rock to uncover the "truth" about a busted twenty-year-old land deal. It wasn't too long before publications across the country were jam-packed with badly reasoned, badly written stories by Bob Woodward wannabes, each one trying desperately to inject some life into an absurd heap of baseless, nonsensical allegations.
Woodward on Whitewater
While most of the media community has tried every which way to make a Watergate out of Whitewater, journalistic legend Bob Woodward sees the Whitewater investigation in a completely different light. When Woodward was asked to compare the two investigations on Larry King Live, the man who brought down Nixon had this to say about the allegations against President Clinton:
"No, [Whitewater is not like Watergate], because there are no tapes. There are no witnesses that are really credible, who are contemporaneous, to say 'I was there, and Clinton said, let's do this that's illegal, or let's do this that's corrupt.' And we have years of inquiries, and you have to think as a reporter on all of these things, you know, maybe he didn't do any of them.
"There are kinds of allegations that shoot all over the place all of the time, and no one is a greater repository of allegations than Bill Clinton. And no doubt some of them, or maybe lots of them, are false -- or maybe even all of them are false.
"But the things linger. There's no closure. All of the Clinton scandals, if you look at them, they've piled up. They're like airplanes circling National Airport, and none have landed."
For example, check out this howler penned by columnist Michael Kramer for Time magazine (and later dissected by Gene Lyons in his book Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater):
"[Whitewater is] different -- or could be -- because the wrongdoing (if there was any) may have involved abuses of power while Clinton was serving as Governor of Arkansas. On the other hand, Whitewater too is from the past. So even if the worst were proved -- and no one yet knows what that is -- the offense might not warrant impeachment [italics Lyons's]."
Hmmm...With all that crazy logic, all those ifs, mights, maybes, and could bes, it sounds like something that might've been written by Seinfeld's Kramer instead of Time's Kramer. Back when I was a student at LSU Law School, we had a saying: If "ifs" and "buts" were beer and nuts, we'd have ourselves a heck of a party. Nevertheless, wrongheaded reporters like Michael Kramer weren't the only ones to lose their minds over Arkansas real estate. Still nursing their wounds from the 1992 presidential election, the fringe right was champing at the bit to find anything, real or imaginary, that could take down America's new President.
When conservatives caught wind of Whitewater, they flocked to the rumors like Newt Gingrich to a plate of hot pork chops. Faster than you can say "media hype," the GOP was hollering louder than a stuck pig. Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson spun the yarn endlessly to their sycophantic audiences, while Senator Alfonse D'Amato, never one to miss a chance for free publicity at someone else's expense, initiated congressional hearings in order to have his face plastered all over C-SPAN.
With the knee-jerk help of the editorial departments of the scandal-hungry national press, the GOP soon raised such a racket that the able, conscientious, and long-suffering U.S. attorney general, Janet Reno, was politically compelled to appoint an independent counsel.
When Reno settled on Republican attorney Robert Fiske to look into Whitewater, there was a lot of rejoicing among conservatives. Senator Bob Dole remarked that "People who know him think he is extremely well-qualified [and] independent." Self-styled Whitewater conspiracy theorist Al D'Amato gushed that Fiske was "one of the most honorable and skilled lawyers." (It should be noted that D'Amato received $3,000 in campaign donations from Mr. Fiske.) "He is a man of enormous integrity," remarked the Republican senator from New York. "He's fine, he's talented, he is a man of great loyalty."
Unfortunately for the country at large, the fringe right was not so pleased with the credentials of Mr. Fiske. These folks, having gone to the considerable trouble of contriving and publicizing bogus criminal acts related to the Whitewater deal, hated seeing any independent counsel appointed (no matter that he was a good GOP member) who might discover how insignificant the whole episode truly was. Although Mr. Fiske had contributed several thousand dollars to Republican candidates and committees over the years, he still wasn't partisan enough to satisfy the wacko right. What the anti-Clinton crazies wanted was a real old-school hatchet man. And there was no one more qualified to dig one up than Jesse Helms.
Take Your Toys and Go Home
Although the cries for Robert Fiske's removal came most loudly and hysterically from the far right, a few national newspapers also joined in this caterwauling chorus. The Wall Street Journal, in particular, painted Fiske as Public Enemy No. 1. The Journal's editorial page attacked Fiske's decision to quit his private practice and called his investigation a "cover-up" and an attempt at "political damage control."
Why such a bloodthirsty attack from such a respected broadsheet? Well, in his report to Congress on the suicide of White House counsel Vincent Foster, Fiske had numbered among the reasons for Foster's tragic death the many "mean-spirited and factually baseless" editorials of The Wall Street Journal. Apparently for the obstinate, conspiracy-minded editorial department of the Journal two wrongs, no matter how downright shabby or horrific their consequences, still make a right.
Helms and Lauch Faircloth, the unofficial spokesmen for the raving ultraright, paid a visit to a fellow Tarheel, Judge David Sentelle. But they weren't just paying a call on a neighbor for some iced tea. Helms and Faircloth don't go anywhere without a program, and they had one to share with Judge Sentelle. Judge Sentelle, by fortuitous coincidence, was head of a three-judge panel that oversees the independent counsel. And by an equally happy coincidence, Sentelle happened to have a cozy history with Senator Helms.
Not only is the good judge a member of Helms's conservative National Congressional Club and a longtime Helms supporter, but his very appointment to the federal bench was sponsored by none other than that esteemed senior senator from North Carolina. Heck, he even served on the appeals panel that overturned the conviction of that old renegade colonel and Iran-contra operative Oliver North.
How Helms Is He?
Make no mistake about it: When I say David Sentelle is an ultraconservative Helmsman, I ain't just whistling Dixie. For one thing, he served as the chair of the Mecklenburg County (Charlotte, North Carolina) Republican Party. Moreover, according to Rolling Stone magazine, not only did Sentelle refuse to resign his membership at some white-only private clubs during his confirmation hearing, he also penned the following words about country music for a 1981 book entitled Why the South Will Survive: "The main appeal of the music of the South is found among...the long-historied, little-loved descendants of the people who built half the civilized world -- the Anglo-Saxons."
And as if Kenneth Starr weren't enough of an attack on the President, David Sentelle and his cronies have appointed at least three other independent counsels in their apparent attempt to stymie the progress of the Clinton administration.
Now to this day nobody really knows what those three men discussed at their table. Sentelle declared that they spoke about cowboy gear and their prostates (a great lunchtime topic if you don't feel like eating much). But you've got to ask yourself, as I did, if it's possible that maybe, just maybe, North Carolina's dynamic Clinton-bashing duo put in a request for a more aggressive partisan prosecutor, one who would work harder to make a Niagara Falls out of Whitewater.
Well, all I know is what happened after that lunch: Less than a month later -- just eight months after Robert Fiske had been appointed as independent counsel -- Judge Sentelle suddenly fired Mr. Fiske for "perceptions of conflict" mainly arising from his having been appointed by Janet Reno. And then his wife got a nice job working for Senator Faircloth not too long after.
And by now, you know who Judge Sentelle's panel appointed in Fiske's place.
That Old Airport Clinton-Basher, Kenneth Starr.
Good people, I'll give it to you short and sweet. In the history of the independent counsel statute, there has never been a prosecutor appointed who's as fiercely partisan as Kenneth Starr.
That bears some repeating: Never In History.
It'd be one thing if the guy had gone to a few Republican rallies in his time, or had once argued a case adverse to the Clinton administration. But this was ridiculous. Between his private practice, his prior casework, and his ties to the GOP right wing, Ken Starr had more conflicts than a John Grisham novel.
In a recent, well-publicized interview, the now infamous independent counsel compared himself to Jack Webb of Dragnet, claiming he was interested in "Just the facts, ma'am." Well, Ken Starr ain't the only Dragnet fan in these parts. So, with a tip of the hat to Joe Friday, I reassembled the old Carville Rapid Response Team to see what they could find in the public record about Ken Starr.
Let me tell you, it didn't take very long before they uncovered quite a few unappealing facts about the appointment and tenure of our inglorious independent persecutor:
Ken Starr was appointed by a panel headed by right-wing judge David Sentelle just after Sentelle's lunch meeting with ultraconservative North Carolina senators Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth.
I've already talked about this outrage myself, so let's hear what some other folks had to say about the results of that mystery meal.
At the time of Inspector Starr's appointment, five former presidents of the American Bar Association, in a letter that questioned the three-judge panel's impartiality, criticized Judge Sentelle's conduct. Stephen Bundy, a prominent University of California, Berkeley, law professor, had this to say about Sentelle's ruse: "The whole point of giving [the case] to judges is that they will be immune from political influence....Why else would they feel compelled to review Reno's judgment except that she is presumed to be politically influenced and he is not? Then we find this guy consorting with the leader of the opposing political faction....At best it appears to be improper."
Ken Starr was extremely active in Republican politics.
Unlike his predecessor, Robert Fiske (who had donated only money to campaigns), Starr also devoted a lot of his time and energy to the Grand Old Party before he was called on to become a so-called independent counsel. Starr cochaired the unsuccessful 1994 congressional campaign of Republican Kyle McSlarrow, now the campaign manager for former vice president Dan Quayle, against Democrat Jim Moran. (It says a lot about Starr's professional skills that he was one of the few folks around who couldn't get a Republican congressional candidate elected in 1994.) Moreover, Mr. Starr even contemplated running for the Virginia Senate as a Republican in 1993, but I guess he figured he could do more damage to the Democrats (and the country) in other ways.
Finally, Ken Starr also did put his money where his mouth was. He contributed $5,475 to the campaigns of six Republican political candidates in the 1993-94 election cycle. Then, while serving as independent counsel, he gave an additional $1,750 to a political action committee (PAC) that supported several 1996 GOP presidential campaigns, including those of Phil Gramm, Richard Lugar, Lamar Alexander, and Bob Dole.
Isn't it funny how the press jumped all over journalist Steven Brill for donating money to the Democrats, but you hardly ever hear mention of the Republican donations of a man with subpoena power?
Ken Starr: Right-Wing Party Animal
To no one's surprise, Ken Starr also found time in his busy schedule as Whitewater counsel to become a fixture on the right-wing party scene, and a GOP attack dog. Check out this story by reformed Clinton antagonist David Brock:
"I had been a guest at the wedding of Barbara and Ted Olson, the Washington super-lawyer who counts President Reagan and The American Spectator, the magazine where I work, among his clients. On hand was the entire anti-Clinton establishment, everyone from Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley to Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr...Former Bush White House counsel C. Boyden Gray joked that since it looked as if Kenneth Starr was not going to come up with the goods before the election, it was up to me to derail the Clinton juggernaut [my italics]."
Ken Starr wrote friend-of-the-court briefs for both pro-GOP and anti-Clinton cases.
On top of sending in his checks, Ken Starr certainly knew how to feed the GOP bulldog: The good judge also made the great effort to show his anti-Clinton bias through his professional favors. Starr once penned a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Republican National Committee, in a case involving Bush attorney general Richard Thornburgh. And before the American taxpayer began footing the bill for his Whitewater work, Starr decided to take on some pro bono work on behalf of Paula Jones, composing a pro-Paula friend-of-the-court brief for the Supreme Court. Miraculously, the habitually clueless Inspector did sense a conflict of interest here, and at the last minute chose not to submit his amicus brief. He's also done work for an organization funded by his billionaire hard-right friend Richard Scaife -- the so-called Independent Women's Forum.
In fact, the Ken Starr and Paula Jones camps have intermingled an awful lot. But we'll get to those travesties in good time.
Ken Starr represented tobacco companies in his private practice while serving as independent counsel.
Now let me see if I have this straight: Kenneth Starr oversees a huge staff of lawyers and FBI agents who jet around the country subpoenaing people. He has slavered over his sex-obsessed investigation for over four years and spent more than 40 million taxpayer dollars to finance his fixation. It would seem like he's a pretty busy guy.
Isn't it funny that he still hasn't quit his day job?
Unlike many of his predecessors, including Robert Fiske, Ken Starr chose to continue his million-dollar-a-year private practice at the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis after his appointment as independent counsel. As if he weren't compromised enough already, this decision by Judge Starr created several more appalling, insurmountable conflicts of interest for his investigation.
First among those are Starr's ties to the tobacco industry. As it turns out, Mr. Starr has been working simultaneously as independent counsel and as a cigarette lawyer, representing Brown & Williamson and Philip Morris in a 1996 class-action lawsuit.
So while our President led a valiant campaign to reduce teenage smoking and prevent cigarette companies from selling their dangerous products to our kids (and, I might add, while Bob Dole was telling people tobacco isn't addictive), Bill Clinton was being investigated at every turn by a man cashing checks from Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man!
(To be fair, Ken Starr has more than just sex and cigarettes on the brain. When asked to provide a roster of Starr's clients in 1994 and 1995, his lawyer Terry Adamson cited a list that includes the American Automobile Manufacturing Association Apple Computer Bell Atlantic Brown & Williamson Tobacco Citisteel General Motors Ray Hays G. Stokely Hughes Aircraft Victor Posner Suzuki Motors the Newspaper Association of America Philip Morris Quaker Oats the Select Committee on Ethics Southwestern Bell United Airlines United Technologies Allied Signal Amoco and the Bradley Foundation.)
Finally, after four years as the independent persecutor, Ken Starr parted company with Kirkland & Ellis. Whether Kirkland & Ellis had the good sense to let him go or whether he needed more time to focus on sex, we don't know.
Ken Starr's law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, was being sued by the Resolution Trust Corporation, a group that Starr investigated.
Nineteen months after Ken Starr took the job as independent counsel, yet another conflict came to light. One of the many groups Starr investigated in his role as Whitewater prosecutor was the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), a government agency in charge of liquidating failed savings and loans.
What does the RTC have to do with Whitewater? Well, it was an RTC senior investigator named L. Jean Lewis who began an inquiry into the Whitewater deal in the first place.
L. Jean Lewis
In his darker moments Ken Starr probably looks to the patron saint of Whitewater, L. Jean Lewis, for inspiration. She was a true pioneer and visionary for his never-ending Clinton-hating campaign.
As a Resolution Trust Corporation investigator in Kansas City, L. Jean Lewis obsessively pursued a criminal case against officials of Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan. As my friends in the War Room (the Little Rock headquarters for the Clinton presidential campaign in 1992) and I were getting the good word out about then Governor Clinton, L. Jean Lewis was busy scratching up scandal. As she reportedly told New York senator Alfonse D'Amato, she had set a deadline of August 31, 1992, for the results of her grubby work. (This would give her just enough time to have an impact on the November election with her revelations.) She also told Little Rock FBI agent Steve Irons that her goal was to change the course of history. She was two days late.
On September 2, 1992, she sent a criminal referral to the U.S. attorney in Little Rock that named the President and the First Lady as possible witnesses to and beneficiaries of criminal wrongdoing. She hounded the attorney general and FBI agents about the referral. But the Justice Department felt there was no real case against the Clintons and, to their eternal credit, history has proven them correct.
But the story of L. Jean Lewis would get even more pitiful: Two years later the would-be whistle-blower and RTC investigator was being investigated herself by the RTC for a variety of alleged abuses, including improper disclosure of confidential documents secretly taping RTC employees keeping confidential documents at home and use of government equipment for personal gain. Lewis admitted that she used her office to market T-shirts and coffee mugs lettered "B.I.T.C.H." ("Bubba, I'm Taking Charge, Hillary.")
Sounds like a pretty impartial and reliable investigator, doesn't she?
After L. Jean Lewis was suspended from the investigation, Starr, true to form, quickly began scrutinizing the RTC to uncover why L. Jean Lewis had been taken off the case.
You might ask, so what? It doesn't seem that big a deal, and Ken Starr might just be a curious guy. But nothing's ever that simple when you're dealing with the Inspector.
It just so happens that while Starr was scrutinizing the RTC for allegedly covering up Whitewater, the RTC was itself suing Starr's private practice for aiding and abetting breaches of fiduciary responsibility. In other words, Starr was investigating the RTC for its connections to a bad loan (the $300,000 Whitewater loan) at the same time that the RTC was suing Starr's firm for its connections to a failed savings and loan. In fact, Ken Starr subpoenaed the very same people for his case who were involved in the lawsuit against Kirkland & Ellis! So you tell me: Was Ken Starr dispassionately serving the public interest with his inquiry into the RTC, or was he, by twisting the arms of those who threatened to expose its wrongdoing, serving the interests of the law firm that has made him wealthy?
And how does our esteemed independent counsel respond? Well, despite the fact that Starr was a senior partner at Kirkland & Ellis and served on his firm's management committee, he claims he knew nothing of the RTC lawsuit against Kirkland & Ellis until October of 1995, more than two and a half years after the RTC filed it. Wake up, Ken: You're not paying attention in those management meetings.
Whatever the case, the RTC and Kirkland & Ellis reached a confidential settlement in 1996. Yet, the question remains: Why was this particular conflict of interest not disclosed by either Starr or the two Republican-led congressional committees overseeing his work? Inquiring minds want to know.
Ken Starr represented International Paper, the company that sold land (and lost money on it) to the Whitewater Development Company.
Yes, folks, the hits just keep on coming. When Ken Starr took the position of independent counsel, he was also representing International Paper. This particular conflict is made even more damning by the fact that critics of Robert Fiske (Ken Starr's predecessor) had claimed that his independence was compromised because his firm -- Davis, Polk & Wardwell -- had also represented International Paper. Ironic, isn't it, that Fiske severed all ties with his firm upon his appointment as independent counsel, while Ken Starr happily continued raking in the dough from his private practice?
Ken Starr is a member of and has worked for several prominent conservative groups.
Besides his ties to the Republican Party, Ken Starr is a member of more right-wing organizations than you can shake a stick at. The Inspector is a member of the Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative lawyers group funded in part by the tobacco industry, and the Federalist Club, a prominent Washington organization of conservative lawyers. Moreover, Starr has done paid legal work for the Bradley Organization, a Richard Scaife-funded outfit that also supports the Landmark Legal Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, and The American Spectator magazine, all renowned anti-Clinton groups. Starr's predecessor had been vilified by the right for his ties to some liberal organizations, but, as with the International Paper episode, Starr's own ties to conservative groups are seen, amazingly, to have no bearing on this man's impartiality.
Ken Starr made speeches to anti-Clinton organizations while serving as independent counsel
As if he didn't have enough conflicts of interest from the get-go, Starr somehow managed to stumble into a few more during the course of his investigation. When the Whitewater counsel wasn't probing into people's private sexual histories or harassing the citizens of Little Rock, he was speaking at various conservative get-togethers, including a speech for another Scaife-funded organization, a property rights group, and a talk, in October 1996,at televangelist Pat Robertson's Regent University. Of the latter, Starr's friend and colleague Joseph diGenova remarked, "I probably would not have gone and talked to Pat Robertson's people at a time when you give people like James Carville a perfectly nice target to take a shot at."
Mr. diGenova, you have a point.
Ken Starr flirted with a deanship at Pepperdine University, a post funded by right-wing godfather Richard Mellon Scaife.
Maybe he was sick and tired of his phony investigation. Maybe he unaccountably felt a glimmer of conscience. Maybe he listened to too many Beach Boys songs. But whatever the reason, in February of 1997 "Hang Ten" Ken announced -- or, more to the point, his aides announced -- that the independent counsel was giving it up and heading for the beach.
Specifically, Ken Starr accepted a job as the dean of Pepperdine University's Schools of Law and Public Policy, which has received substantial contributions from Richard Scaife, the man Time magazine called "the premier sugar daddy of the American right." Only after tremendous public pressure from the scandal-loving editorial departments of the New York Times and Washington Post, and from such conservative luminaries as columnist William Safire and ad man Floyd Brown, did Starr decide to postpone his Malibu move until he "completed" his role as independent persecutor.
Ken Starr was forced by Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell to stop representing Bell Atlantic.
Why has Webb Hubbell been so badly victimized by Ken Starr during the past four years? That's one of the easy questions to answer. As it turns out, a 1993 case involving Bell Atlantic made a strong connection to the origins of the independent counsel's rancor.
During Starr's final days as solicitor general of the Bush administration, Bell Atlantic sued the federal government in an attempt to overturn a ban on phone companies becoming involved in providing video services (a ban that was later overturned during the Clinton administration). Though it has long been thought a conflict of interest for a lawyer to take a case against the government that arose while that lawyer was working for the government, private citizen Starr, never one to pass up a deal that might increase his bank account or get him some attention, signed on with the Bell Atlantic legal team in 1993. Much to Starr's annoyance, then Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell informed him that the Justice Department was concerned that a conflict of interest existed and that, legally, he might not be able to take the case.
And as poor Webb Hubbell learned the hard way, you don't want to get between Ken Starr and someone else's money.
During the Whitewater mess, Starr raked Hubbell over the coals but good. Hubbell probably could have gotten off a lot easier if he'd been willing to lie about the President, but he's an honorable man. He held firm. "The office of independent counsel can indict my dog," he said. "They can indict my cat, but I'm not going to lie about the President. I'm not going to lie about the First Lady."
Heck, if Ken Starr could have figured out a way to get a dog to hold his paw over a Bible, I guarantee he would have subpoenaed that hound and the litter he came from.
Fortunately, a federal judge has come forward to liberate Hubbell from the wrath of Starr and put a stop to the Inspector's sordid abuse of American law. Calling the independent counsel's case against Hubbell "a quintessential fishing expedition" and his tactics "scary," a federal judge threw Starr's attempts to destroy Webb Hubbell out of court and into the gutter where they belonged.
Copyright © 1998 by James Carville