By DAVID JOHNSTON and DON VAN NATTA Jr. New York Times
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.
discussed in recent days is the appointment of a United States Attorney,
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.
Janet Reno, who is traveling in South Africa, has not reached any decision
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.
will focus on whether Starr's prosecutors improperly coerced witnesses
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
In a meeting
with Eric H. Holder Jr., the Deputy Attorney General, Hatch expressed dismay
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
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
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.
of whether an Attorney General has the authority to investigate an independent
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
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.
the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 provides for the appointment of an
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
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
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.
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.
of Starr recently called the Justice Department inquiry "politically motivated"
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.