Newsreal: Subpoena me? Subpoena you!

Trying to turn the tables, President Clinton's lawyer subpoenas Kenneth Starr and others he suspects of colluding to get the president.

By Jonathan Broder
Published February 4, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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Kenneth Starr isn't the only one throwing subpoenas around in the current rash of alleged Clinton sex scandals. In a high-stakes political two-can-play-at-this game, President Clinton's lawyers have been quietly issuing some subpoenas of their own, including one to the independent counsel.

Salon has learned that Robert Bennett, who is representing the president in the Paula Jones case, has issued at least three subpoenas in recent days: one to Starr; one to Kirkland & Ellis, Starr's law firm; and another to an elusive New York lawyer who secretly worked on the Paula Jones sexual misconduct suit against Clinton.

Their purpose: to gather information about possibly illegal collusion between Starr's office and attorneys representing Paula Jones.

Bennett has long suspected that Starr's office and Jones' attorneys have been working together in their legal pursuit of the president. His suspicions were initially aroused when Starr's investigation into the Whitewater land deal detoured into a probe of Clinton's sexual history last fall, around the same time that Jones' new legal team began exploring the same territory to back up their claim that Clinton had a history of sexually harassing women.

Bennett's suspicions hardened when agents from the independent counsel's office swooped down on an unsuspecting Lewinsky Jan. 16 as she sat at the bar at the Ritz Carlton hotel in suburban Virginia with her friend Linda Tripp, who was wearing a wire planted by Starr's office to secretly record Lewinsky's account of an alleged affair with the president and efforts by the president and others to cover it up.

In addition to the tapes, according to Lewinsky's attorney, William Ginsburg, the agents informed Lewinsky they possessed her sworn affidavit, submitted in the Paula Jones suit, in which she denied any affair with the president. "You're in trouble," one of the agents reportedly told Lewinsky.

The troubling question for Starr is: How did his office obtain Lewinsky's affidavit, which is sealed under a gag order imposed by the federal judge presiding over the Jones case?

In a surprise move last week, Starr filed a motion to postpone the Jones case indefinitely because, it was claimed, Jones' lawyers were dogging his witnesses and complicating his investigation into possible obstruction of justice by the president. In a less-noticed complaint, Starr stated that Bennett had "subpoenaed information directly from OIC [the Office of Independent Counsel]." Federal Judge Susan Webber Wright rejected the motion, and also banned any testimony by Lewinsky from being used in the Jones case. Her ruling also meant that Bennett's subpoena remains active.

In a telephone interview Monday, Jack Levin, a partner with Kirkland & Ellis, refused to confirm or deny that the Chicago-based firm that Starr still works for had received a subpoena, citing Judge Webber Wright's gag order.

Last week Liesl Noll, a spokeswoman for the New York law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, confirmed to Salon that a process server had tried to deliver a subpoena to one of its lawyers, George Conway III, but was unsuccessful because Conway was away. Conway's secretary told Salon that he was on vacation and unreachable. Conway did not return several messages left by Salon on his voice mail, and his whereabouts remain a mystery.

Noll confirmed that Conway, a 34-year-old conservative activist, had recently informed the firm's stunned partners that he had worked for free and without their knowledge on the Jones case, writing the crucial Supreme Court brief that successfully argued Jones' suit should proceed despite the fact that Clinton was still in office.

As part of his aggressive legal counterattack, Bennett is seeking to show that Starr may have used Conway, along with lawyers in his own firm of Kirkland & Ellis, as intermediaries between the independent counsel's office and the Jones legal team. For example, the White House strongly suspects that Conway delivered portions of Linda Tripp's tapes to Newsweek and put Tripp in touch with her current lawyer, James Moody, another conservative activist.

There is also a suspicion in the White House that the Jan. 16 swoop on a frightened Monica Lewinsky was part of a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone plan, cooked up by Starr and Jones' attorneys, to get her to admit she had an affair with the president and that he encouraged her to lie about it. Had the plan been successful, Starr would have had an obstruction of justice case against the president, and Jones' attorney's would get testimony from a witness to bolster their pattern-of-behavior argument.

Judge Webber Wright's ruling against the use of Lewinsky's testimony in the Jones case would have scotched half of the plan. Meanwhile, Starr's efforts to get Lewinsky to testify to possible obstruction of justice and subornation of perjury charges against the president have bogged down.

Whether Bennett has really turned the tables on Kenneth Starr is an open question. According to legal experts familiar with the Jones case, the period of discovery -- the time in which both sides can gather evidence -- expires next month. If Conway remains unreachable until then, Bennett's effort to question him may fail. Kirkland & Ellis, say experts, may also be able to stall on Bennett's subpoena until the discovery period runs out.

And if that doesn't work, there are other ways to deny Bennett what he seeks. "I can hear the shredders humming right now," said a source close to President Clinton.

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Bill Clinton Robert F. Bennett