What Did Kenneth Starr Know About the Lewinsky Tapes?

With many Americans wondering how President Clinton suddenly became the target of a sexual inquisition, perhaps the old Watergate query

With many Americans wondering how President Clinton suddenly became the target of a sexual inquisition, perhaps the old Watergate query should be turned on the independent counsel himself: What did Kenneth Starr know about the illegal taping of Monica Lewinsky, and when did he know it?

The President’s defense lawyers are not alone in believing that Mr. Starr may have exceeded and even abused his mandate in pursuit of his White House quarry. What could ultimately undo the independent counsel, both politically and legally, is proof that he has condoned the use of unlawful methods, from covert taping to leaking, in order to force a dramatic, successful conclusion to his three-year, $30 million investigation.

A New York lawyer named George T. Conway III may possess the information that could confirm those suspicions. At 34, Mr. Conway is one of the nation’s elite corporate litigators, earning close to $1 million a year at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz for representing such clients as Philip Morris and the National Football League. He is also a longtime member of the Federalist Society, a powerful association of conservative lawyers whose patrons include Mr. Starr. And since 1994, without the knowledge of his partners at Wachtell Lipton, he has been giving secret legal advice to Paula Jones in her sexual harassment complaint against Bill Clinton.

Among those who would like to ask Mr. Conway about his role in the Lewinsky matter is the President’s attorney in the Jones case, Robert Bennett. According to well-placed sources, Mr. Bennett issued a broad subpoena on Jan. 26 for documents and testimony from Mr. Conway about the New York attorney’s role in the Jones case and the Lewinsky scandal. Mr. Bennett refused to comment on the subpoena, but other sources confirmed that he wants to grill Mr. Conway about possible collusion between the independent counsel and the Jones camp in the creation of the current crisis.

In short, Mr. Conway just may be an exposed element in the conservative scandalmongering apparatus whose mission is nothing less than to destroy the Clinton Presidency.

He is vulnerable to subpoena, unlike other lawyers who have worked for Ms. Jones, because he does not have a privileged relationship with her that would ordinarily protect him from having to testify about his actions. Actually serving him with legal papers, however, may not be as simple as Mr. Bennett would like.

After Mr. Conway’s name first became known to a few reporters late in January, he finally informed his stunned partners at Wachtell Lipton-the powerhouse firm where, ironically, former Clinton counsel Bernard Nussbaum is a partner-about his secret work for Ms. Jones. His labors on her behalf included helping to write her Supreme Court brief arguing against Presidential immunity last summer. When reached by The Observer at his firm’s Park Avenue offices on Friday, Jan. 23, Mr. Conway declined to comment about his role in the Jones case or the Lewinsky matter, but indicated he would be available again the following Monday. Callers to his office on Monday afternoon, however, were told by a secretary that Mr. Conway is “on vacation.” Later that day he called back, to leave a return message saying that he was “out of town.”

In the present atmosphere of leaks from sources around the Jones camp and the independent counsel’s office, Mr. Conway’s connection to the President’s troubles is murky. But after news of former White House aide Linda Tripp’s taped conversations with former intern Monica Lewinsky flared into a firestorm on Jan. 21, Mr. Bennett said, “I frankly smell a rat.” That was widely interpreted to mean that he did not believe the story put out by Ms. Tripp’s friend, literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, about how Ms. Tripp decided to covertly tape Ms. Lewinsky, in apparent violation of Maryland law, and then brought some 20 hours of those tapes to the attention of Mr. Starr and Ms. Jones’ lawyers.

Although Ms. Goldberg has denied that Ms. Tripp’s actions were inspired by a “conservative attack machine,” it’s clear that Mr. Bennett and others in the White House believe that political adversaries are indeed the source of the allegations against the President. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton bluntly referred to a “vast right-wing conspiracy” in a Jan. 27 interview on NBC’s Today show.

What Mr. Bennett is hoping to uncover with his subpoena is a more complete account of how Ms. Tripp decided to tape Ms. Lewinsky; who else might have been involved or have known of the taping while it was occurring; and how the existence of the tapes was leaked, first to Newsweek magazine and then-after Newsweek editors held the story-to Internet gossipmonger Matt Drudge. Lately a featured “expert” on network news broadcasts, Mr. Drudge is a high-speed conduit into the mainstream media for rumors launched by Republican and right-wing operatives.

Mr. Bennett surely would like to question Mr. Conway under oath about the circumstances of the Tripp leak to Newsweek . He also wants to know whether Mr. Conway was a source for the series of “exclusives” from the Jones camp featured in the Drudge Report , leading up to and including the Lewinsky story. All of these stories are regarded by the White House as serious violations of the broad gag order imposed in the Jones case by Federal District Judge Susan Webber Wright.

Asked about Mr. Conway, Mr. Drudge would only say, “I’ve never met the guy. I know very little about him.” As for whether Mr. Conway was his source for the Lewinsky story, Mr. Drudge refused to comment on “speculation about my sources. All I can say is it came from multiple people in and out of government.”

The clearest connection between Mr. Conway and the Lewinsky blow-up is with James Moody, the lawyer who has represented Ms. Tripp in her dealings with the independent counsel. Although Mr. Moody has told reporters that he doesn’t know how Ms. Tripp got his name, The Observer has learned that it was Mr. Conway who put Ms. Tripp in touch with his friend Mr. Moody on Jan. 12, after she fired another Washington attorney.

And while Mr. Moody has been portrayed lately in news stories as a little-known sole practitioner with no political agenda, he has been well known in Washington as a dedicated conservative for more than a decade. During the 1980’s, he worked for the Capital Legal Foundation, a conservative “public interest law firm” that is now defunct. Mr. Moody assisted in Capital’s most famous case, Gen. William Westmoreland’s libel suit against CBS, which became a cause célèbre among right-wing media critics. He has since moved on to another prominent conservative legal entity, the Landmark Legal Foundation. Last summer, he reportedly was brought in by Landmark to work on its lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service over the agency’s alleged harassment of conservative nonprofit organizations.

If Mr. Moody’s presence is not proof of a “right-wing conspiracy,” it is, like the role of Ms. Goldberg, certainly suggestive of conservative influence in the Lewinsky matter. After all, the Westmoreland suit’s $2 million cost was almost entirely underwritten by Richard Mellon Scaife, the billionaire conservative who has funded numerous anti-Clinton ventures, including several undertaken by Landmark.

Perhaps none of this will matter if the President cannot provide satisfactory answers about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky. But the conduct of Mr. Starr is also under intense scrutiny, and he eventually will have to explain himself, too.

Was the independent counsel in contact with the Jones camp regarding Ms. Lewinsky before he was approached by Ms. Tripp? How did the Lewinsky tapes find their way to Newsweek , and how was their existence broached to The Drudge Report ? Were any of the attorneys working for Ms. Jones aware of the taping while it was taking place?

Those are a few of the many questions Mr. Bennett will want to put to Mr. Conway whenever the Wachtell Lipton partner returns from his “vacation.”

With additional reporting by Greg Sargent . What Did Kenneth Starr Know About the Lewinsky Tapes?