By DAVID JOHNSTON and DON VAN NATTA Jr. New York Times

          WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department is considering whether to appoint a special
          investigative prosecutor to conduct its inquiry into charges of possible misconduct by
          Kenneth W. Starr, Government officials said Thursday.

          One proposal discussed in recent days is the appointment of a United States Attorney, possibly one
          with solid Republican credentials, who would supervise a team of Justice Department prosecutors
          and F.B.I. agents, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

          Attorney General Janet Reno, who is traveling in South Africa, has not reached any decision on the
          matter, the officials said. But in recent days her aides have weighed a variety of options should the
          Attorney General choose to take the investigation of the independent counsel away from the Office of
          Professional Responsibility, the Justice Department's ethics unit.

          The investigation will focus on whether Starr's prosecutors improperly coerced witnesses like Monica
          S. Lewinsky, disclosed grand jury secrets to news organizations and withheld possible conflicts of
          interest from Justice Department lawyers at the outset of the Lewinsky inquiry.

          The discussions at the Justice Department come in response to a recent exchange of rancorous
          correspondence between department officials and lawyers in Starr's office. In a letter to Ms. Reno
          late last week, Starr criticized what he regarded as unauthorized disclosures to news organizations
          about the Justice Department's inquiry.

          Starr also suggested that the Justice Department could not be trusted to conduct an unbiased inquiry,
          the officials said. Today, Charles G. Bakaly 3d, a spokesman for Starr, would not discuss the matter.

          Starr, the officials said, favors an alternate approach that would shift the inquiry beyond Ms. Reno's
          direct control. Starr prefers the appointment of a lawyer from outside the Justice Department who
          has broad legal experience, someone agreed upon by Ms. Reno and Starr.

          One name mentioned by Starr as the kind of candidate with the stature to carry out such an inquiry
          was former Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, who served under President Jimmy Carter and is 80
          years old. A representative of Bell said Thursday that he was traveling and unavailable for comment.

          Some lawmakers have also expressed reservations about whether the Office of Professional
          Responsibility should supervise the inquiry. Last Friday, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah
          Republican who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned the impartiality of the office, one
          official said.

          In a meeting with Eric H. Holder Jr., the Deputy Attorney General, Hatch expressed dismay at news
          articles about the inquiry of Starr's conduct in the Lewinsky matter, the officials said, adding that
          Hatch suggested that the Justice Department consider alternatives to allowing their office to carry out
          the investigation. Justice Department officials would not comment on the matter.

          Should Ms. Reno refer the matter to an outside counsel, it would symbolically bring the Whitewater
          investigation full circle. Depending on the precise powers granted to such a counsel, Starr and his
          prosecutors could be forced to submit to the kind of intense scrutiny that Starr has trained on
          President Clinton and White House aides since August 1994.

          Still, it is unclear how much authority would be granted to an outside counsel. There is no provision in
          the law that permits Ms. Reno to seek an independent counsel to investigate Starr's operation. But
          Justice Department officials have concluded that under Ms. Reno's statutory authority, she could
          appoint a prosecutor with the same power that an independent counsel has to convene grand juries
          and compel testimony under oath.

          But the officials said the inquiry, as now envisioned, would probably be administrative rather than
          criminal. As such, the maximum penalties if wrongdoing is found would probably amount to no more
          than reprimands, suspensions or dismissals, rather than felony or misdemeanor charges.
          Nevertheless, the lawyer who leads the inquiry would almost certainly ask Starr's prosecutors to turn
          over highly sensitive information about how they investigated the President.

          The question of whether an Attorney General has the authority to investigate an independent counsel
          is unresolved. There is no language in the statute that even addresses how an independent counsel
          would be investigated.

          Under the law, the Attorney General is given the sole authority to determine whether to remove an
          independent counsel.

          But Ms. Reno's aides and Starr's prosecutors have argued for months over whether that
          responsibility also gives her the inherent power to investigate him. This unsettled debate has stalled
          the Justice Department inquiry of Starr's office, the officials said.

          In addition, the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 provides for the appointment of an independent
          counsel if there are specific criminal accusations against any individual among about two dozen
          officials who qualify as "covered officials" in the executive branch, like the President and Vice
          President. Independent counsels are not among the officials designated as "covered" by the law.

          In part, the officials said, the deliberations at the Justice Department to move the inquiry beyond the
          direct control of the Attorney General are an attempt to address Starr's concerns that the department
          cannot conduct an impartial inquiry.

          In his letter of complaint to the department last week, Starr objected to news reports that disclosed
          the scope of the internal inquiry and the long-running conflict between the independent counsel's
          office and the Justice Department.

          In the past, Ms. Reno has named senior prosecutors to handle difficult cases. She selected Michael
          R. Stiles, the top Federal prosecutor in Philadelphia, to head an inquiry into the 1992 Ruby Ridge
          standoff in Idaho. And in 1997, she selected Charles G. La Bella, a senior Federal prosecutor in San
          Diego, to investigate campaign finance issues.

          But finding a prosecutor with Republican credentials late in the second term of a Democratic
          President's second term could be difficult. One person mentioned as a possible candidate is Robert
          S. Mueller 3d, the Acting United States Attorney in San Francisco. Mueller, who headed the Justice
          Department's criminal division during the Bush Administration, said Thursday that he had heard
          nothing about the matter.

          At Starr's office, prosecutors remain highly suspicious of Ms. Reno, associates of Starr said. They
          challenged the timing of the department inquiry, saying that it surfaced shortly before the Senate voted
          to acquit Clinton, at a time when Starr appeared to be politically vulnerable. And they argued that
          some of the accusations have been publicly known for more than a year.

          One associate of Starr recently called the Justice Department inquiry "politically motivated" and
          wondered aloud whether an aggressive investigation of Starr had been quietly encouraged by a
          vengeful White House. Several weeks ago, another associate of Starr predicted that "the heat would
          be turned up" on the Office of the Independent Counsel after the Senate acquitted the President.

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