Remember Ken Starr? He Hasn’t Gone Away

However the human disaster in Kosovo ends, there is at least one Washington official whose fortunes have improved. As long as the major media are covering NATO’s war against Slobodan Milosevic, little attention will be paid to the final stages of Kenneth Starr’s Government career, now unfolding in a Federal courthouse in Little Rock, Ark.

Do you remember Ken Starr? Possibly you do. But you could be forgiven if the name sounds only vaguely familiar. After all, the hotshot journalists who once clustered round him hoping for a juicy leak have dispersed, leaving coverage of Susan McDougal’s trial mostly to the wire services. Yet Mr. Starr should be relieved that almost nobody is watching anymore. The independent counsel may exact vengeance on Ms. McDougal, but the price of that satisfaction is getting higher. In Mr. Starr’s hands, the process of making cases looks as unappetizing as the manufacturing of laws and sausages.

Ms. McDougal faces another sojourn in the steel hotel for refusing to answer questions before the independent counsel’s grand jury, on counts including criminal contempt and obstruction of justice. She proudly admits her silence, so as a matter of law it ought to be easy for Mr. Starr’s associates to convict her on the contempt charges. Not much drama there-except for the aggressive challenge by her attorney, Mark Geragos, to the tactics of the Office of Independent Counsel.

From the beginning, Mr. Geragos has said that prosecutors attempted to force Ms. McDougal to confirm their version of Whitewater, and thus implicate the President in an illegal loan scheme. Having been convicted in 1996 along with James McDougal of fraud charges unrelated to Whitewater, she got the same offer that her husband couldn’t refuse: roll over, change stories, cooperate. She declined, stopped talking altogether, and served 18 months for civil contempt.

According to Mr. Geragos, that punishment was meant to induce his client to lie. He cannot prove that, but he has convinced Judge George Howard to permit testimony from other witnesses who claim the independent counsel mistreated them because they didn’t say what Mr. Starr wanted to hear.

The last defense witness to appear was Julie Hiatt Steele. She is the former friend of Kathleen Willey who first confirmed Ms. Willey’s allegations of being sexually assaulted by the President near the Oval Office, and then recanted, saying Ms. Willey had asked her to lie about the alleged incident. Last January, several months after she repeated her recantation before another of Mr. Starr’s grand juries, his office indicted her for perjury and obstructing justice.

On April 2, testifying under oath despite her own current legal jeopardy, she told the McDougal jury she had suffered the fate Ms. McDougal allegedly feared-a perjury indictment for telling the truth. “I felt I could avoid indictment by changing my story,” she said.

It’s impossible to be sure who is lying in these convoluted circumstances. Yet it would be strange if, as Mr. Geragos charges, Mr. Starr decided to indict Ms. Steele despite the results of two polygraph examinations that indicated she had been more truthful than Ms. Willey (to whom he has given a grant of immunity). “There’s no question that she passed a polygraph test, and there’s no question that Kathleen Willey failed a polygraph test,” the lawyer told reporters outside the courtroom.

The details of Ms. Steele’s testimony renewed other doubts about the Starr prosecution. For one thing, she sharply contradicted the independent counsel’s own testimony last November before the House Judiciary Committee.

Back then, Mr. Starr indignantly denied Ms. Steele’s complaint that his office had used her adoption of a Romanian orphan to bring pressure on her last year. He reiterated that denial in a Dec. 11, 1998, letter to the committee: “We have not obtained or attempted to obtain any documents concerning the adoption of her son from anyone … The suggestion that this Office … has attempted in any way to use Ms. Steele’s son’s adoption to pressure her to change her testimony is absolutely false.” But Ms. Steele testified that agents working for Mr. Starr had interrogated her neighbors, friends, and relatives about the adoption. She also said that investigators had asked how she paid for the adoption and subpoenaed records of that transaction.

And in yet another apparent lapse into prurience, she mentioned that her daughter’s boyfriend had been asked by Mr. Starr’s associates whether he had ever slept with Ms. Steele.

Meanwhile, the current issue of Newsweek says Mr. Starr is planning his return to private life and pondering how to repair his public image. One reported suggestion is an appearance on Larry King Live , where he will show he’s a nice guy, not a right-wing zealot. He can only hope that the CNN talk-show host is too fully absorbed in Mr. Milosevic’s atrocities to notice what has been going on in Little Rock.