Newsreal: Starr chamber

Washington journalist Mollie Dickenson investigates the unsavory political origins of Kenneth Starr's endless inquisition of President Clinton.


Mollie Dickenson
February 25, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Independent counsel Kenneth Starr's interminable investigation of President Clinton began as a political dirty trick cooked up in the George Bush White House in an 11th-hour attempt to defeat Clinton and win Bush's reelection. This political scheme involved generating a bogus criminal referral that charged the Clintons with financial crimes in the Whitewater affair, and then improperly using the power of the presidency to get the Department of Justice and the Resolution Trust Corporation to act on that referral. Subsequent criminal referrals naming the Clintons, which led to the appointment of a Whitewater independent counsel, were equally politically inspired.

This startling and complex story emerges from reporting, statements and sworn testimony produced by the Whitewater congressional committees, the significance of which has never been fully reported nor put into context. The facts clearly show that the investigation of Clinton, which has dragged on for over four years and has now culminated in the sordid Monica Lewinsky allegations, was from the very beginning politically motivated. They also show that Kenneth Starr's title of "independent" counsel is ludicrous. Starr, a Bush administration official and determined enemy of Clinton's, came into his office with the intent of undermining the Clinton presidency. Starr's political motivations have been widely commented upon. But completely overlooked has been his role in covering up the Bush administration's dirty tricks -- the very dirty tricks that gave rise to the endless investigation over which he now presides. The real scandal is how the nation's elite media have failed to explore the unsavory political underpinnings of the Whitewater investigation, swallowing unskeptically whatever Starr's office leaks to them.

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Jan. 20 marked the fourth anniversary of the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Bill and Hillary Clinton's 20-year-old investment in rural Arkansas property and other subsequent matters now known as "Whitewater." After four years of intensive investigations by Starr and his predecessor, the office of the independent counsel had brought no charges of illegality against the president or first lady. The very next day, however, Jan. 21, the Washington Post broke the story that Starr had evidence alleging that President Clinton might have committed or suborned perjury in his Jan. 17 testimony in the Paula Jones case. The country has been immersed in a media frenzy ever since.

To date, Whitewater independent counsels have spent $40 million of taxpayers' money. The Republican House and Senate have each held two lengthy and expensive sets of Whitewater hearings, one deliberately extended into June 1996. Throughout that campaign year, news media in Washington and New York were abuzz with rumors that at the very least, Hillary Clinton was going to be indicted. For what? For something, was the vague answer. And still, Starr made no charges of wrongdoing by the president or first lady. Indeed, once Clinton was re-elected Starr waited three months, announced his resignation and tried to slip quietly out of town, heading for an academic post at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. "Hey, it was only politics," was the message. But he reversed himself days later when a media firestorm erupted.

Today we know that Starr became even more determined to dig something up on Clinton to justify his costly investigation. Now, as the possibility of a constitutional crisis looms, an examination of just how and where the charges against the Clintons began is imperative.

The evidence shows that Whitewater began with the Bush White House's attempt to use the federal bureaucracy against Clinton in the 1992 election, and included collusion with a Republican banking investigator at the Resolution Trust Corporation, the agency created to oversee the liquidation of failed S&Ls, with a deep enmity toward Clinton.

The evidence shows further that, since his first days as Whitewater independent counsel in 1994, Starr has been using his position to cover up the improper and possibly illegal actions of high Bush White House officials and Bush's attorney general against then-Gov. Clinton in the final weeks of the 1992 presidential campaign. By virtue of his office, Starr has been able to continue that coverup while relentlessly pursuing President Clinton ever since.

Through the unlimited power of his office, the former appointee of both the Reagan and Bush administrations has also been able to expand and add to his investigations. In an attempt to defeat Clinton in 1996, Starr withheld his report on Vincent Foster's suicide (something Foster's family had accepted on the day of his death) until after the election. He has continually delved into the daily operation of the Clinton White House and kept the Clintons under constant suspicion of having committed financial crimes. And now, finally, Starr is using his unchecked power to discredit Clinton once and for all in an audacious personal strike at the president.

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Just as Starr used his office to cover up Republican wrongdoing in the 1992 presidential election, he has also taken steps to cover up the activities of the one person who knows how Starr came to insert himself into the Paula Jones suit against President Clinton. By immunizing informant Linda Tripp, Starr is protecting her both from prosecution and from the media. Starr also prevented Tripp from testifying under oath in the Jones trial, keeping her story and the true nature of her link to him hidden.

Hillary Clinton believes this vitriol is coming from the Republican right wing, but sworn testimony reveals that Starr's tactics are part of a much broader Republican political strategy for which Starr is the front man.

That a man with so many clear conflicts of interest was chosen to be independent counsel in the first place begs much closer scrutiny than Starr has heretofore been given. In the context of today's firestorm over Lewinsky, Tripp and Jones, it is important to remember just what Starr was doing at the moment he was given the job of independent counsel.

In July 1994, Starr was publicly opposing presidential immunity for Clinton in the Jones suit and was advising Jones' lawyers on that suit and writing a friend-of-the-court brief on Jones' behalf. At the same moment, Starr was also avidly seeking the job of Whitewater independent counsel. Just days later, on Aug. 5, a three-judge panel dominated by Republican appointees chose Starr to replace the widely respected Robert Fiske, who had been in the job since that January.

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Last month, three and a half years later, Starr came full circle when he succeeded in marrying the Jones civil case to his alleged "sex scandal" investigation of Clinton by using the overreaching, apparently illegal tactic of secretly taping Lewinsky and bullying her to secretly record conversations with Clinton and Vernon Jordan. These tactics, which have been criticized by lawyers and the public alike, have hugely and notoriously expanded Starr's role as an unelected and unaccountable grand inquisitor of the president and Hillary Clinton. His continual subpoenas escalate the stakes daily.

Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh said recently on TV, "Kenneth Starr's injecting himself into Clinton's private (Jones) civil case is grossly unfair to the president." Walsh, a self-described "Reagan Republican," recently added in the New York Review of Books: "Ordinarily, prosecutors do not, as Starr is now doing, investigate perjury in a civil action while that action is pending. In 60 years of practice, I have never known this to happen ... Starr's somewhat sanctimonious pronouncement at his recent press conference that he was interested in 'truth' seems to reveal an overblown conception of his responsibility."

Yet, despite extensive coverage of Lewinsky, Tripp and Jones, very little attention is being given to Starr's background and motivation. Why did Starr so eagerly, according to friends, put his hand up for this job? And why was Fiske, also a Republican, replaced by this very partisan member of Bush's administration? Why did Starr then start all over, investigating things that Fiske had thoroughly probed?

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These are disturbing questions, and the answers to them are far more disturbing.

The story begins in March 1992, when the New York Times
reported that Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton and
wife Hillary had invested in rural development land with James
McDougal, owner of a failed savings and loan. "Clinton joined S&L
operator in an Ozark real-estate venture," said the headline, but
the story obfuscated that McDougal didn't buy the S&L, Madison Guaranty, until four years later, nor that, by March 1992, Madison had already
been investigated by three federal agencies. Furthermore, McDougal had already been tried and acquitted on criminal charges. Nevertheless, at the
Resolution Trust Corporation, an official named L. Jean Lewis was assigned to reinvestigate Madison. Lewis' supervisor at the RTC, Richard Iorio, testified to Congress last year that her assignment was in response to the Times
story. But that was a gross glossing over of why she was really
chosen for this job.

Lewis was by no means impartial. According to a letter
that surfaced later during the Senate hearings, she had written to
a friend in February 1992 that Clinton was a "lying
bastard." Although she had previously worked in a bank, Lewis was
neither a civil servant nor a trained investigator. But the Bush
administration had billions to spend on the S&L crisis, and it
sought Republicans for as many jobs as possible, creating a huge
political fiefdom with taxpayer money.

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Lewis and Iorio proceeded to put Madison ahead of 10
other much larger failed Arkansas S&Ls that had never been investigated, much less prosecuted, as Madison had been, and Lewis went to
work on Madison alone.

In late July, Clinton won the Democratic nomination and
quickly pulled ahead of President Bush in the polls.

Lewis later told Sen. Alphonse D'Amato's Whitewater committee that she had set for herself a "self-imposed deadline" of Aug. 31, 1992, for her investigation. Little Rock FBI Agent Steve Irons said that Lewis, in a
"very dramatic way," told him that she had "given up a job opportunity in D.C." so that she could "alter history" by completing
a criminal referral prior to the presidential election. Irons said that Lewis' comments were clearly related to naming the Clintons in her
criminal referral.

On Sept. 2, 1992, Lewis and Iorio sent a criminal
referral to Charles Banks, the Republican-appointed U.S. attorney
in Little Rock, in which she named Bill and Hillary Clinton as
"possible witnesses" to and "potential beneficiaries" of criminal
wrongdoing in the failure of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan. In
violation of RTC policy, she began calling Banks and Irons. Irons
testified that she left numerous messages asking "what the FBI was
doing with the referral." Irons thought her calls were
inappropriate and "refused to give her status reports." In further violation of RTC policy, Lewis
responded by traveling from Kansas City to Little Rock on Sept.
18, 1992, and dropping in on Irons unannounced to press her case.
Little Rock FBI agents said they were "concerned about Lewis' objectivity and overall professionalism." Lewis told the FBI that "her boss, Richard Iorio, kept asking her to try to find out what it [the FBI] was doing."

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Lewis' numerous phone calls to U.S Attorney Banks' office also struck him as "unusual. I saw no need for the sense of
urgency except for who the witnesses were [the Clintons] ... so it
caused me to be very circumspect about it." The calls "came between
early September and Oct. 16," said Banks. Assistant U.S. Attorney Floyd Mac Dodson recalled that Lewis made these calls "between the first
of September and probably November, around election time ... I got
the impression she thought I was not moving fast enough."

Lewis later swore under oath that she hadn't contacted the
FBI or Banks' office until after the election, in
December 1992 -- a statement that was refuted by the testimony and contemporaneous notes of Irons, Banks and numerous other federal law
enforcement officials.

Meanwhile, sworn testimony reveals that the Bush White House
already knew about Lewis' criminal referral and that Lewis had failed to get Banks to act on it. Bush's attorney general, William Barr, testified that on Sept. 17, 1992, during a flight on Air Force One, White House Cabinet Secretary Edith Holiday asked him whether he "was aware of an S&L matter involving
Bill Clinton pending before the Justice Department." Holiday was
also, for the duration, chief liaison between the Bush White House
and the Bush-Quayle reelection campaign, and had been a senior official in Bush's 1988 campaign.

When Barr returned to his Department of Justice office, he
checked with the FBI on Holiday's assertion. The FBI responded
that they "had no record of such a case." Barr testified that
when he reported this to Holiday, "She seemed surprised to hear this," making him wonder "if she had better information" than he. So he checked again and learned this time "that an RTC criminal referral mentioning the Clintons did indeed exist."

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Holiday, whose husband, Terence Adamson, is Starr's personal attorney, denied "any recollection" of the two contacts Attorney General Barr testified he had with her.

Barr testified that he was angry because he believed that
Banks had "deliberately withheld" the
referral. "Anything that involves a public personage, a celebrity
[or] public officials," he testified, required "an urgent
report" to the Justice Department.

On Oct. 8, Barr convened a joint FBI-Justice Department panel to examine the referral. But the panel concluded that the
referral "failed to cite evidence of any federal criminal offense."
The panel's comment about the referral ranged from "junky"
and "half-baked" to that its allegations were "reckless, irresponsible" and "odd."

Nevertheless, Barr put a preliminary investigation into motion and ordered Banks to review it again and to report back by
Oct. 16, two weeks before the Nov. 3 election.

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But, in fact, Banks had already concluded,
and the FBI in Little Rock had agreed, that "no action should be
taken on the referral at that time." Banks had already prosecuted
Jim McDougal in 1990 for alleged bank crimes, and McDougal had been
acquitted. Banks said further that he believed "no prosecutable
case existed against any of the witnesses," most notably the Clintons.

As Banks noted in his report to the Justice Department dated Oct. 16, Barr's desire to expedite the Whitewater investigation smacked of improper political use of the federal judicial system. "I know in investigations of this type," wrote Banks, "the first steps, such as issuance of ... subpoenas ... will lead to media and public
inquiries of matters that are subject to absolute privacy. Even media questions about such an investigation all too often publicly purport to 'legitimize what can't be proven' ... I must opine that after such a lapse of time, the insistence for urgency in this case appears to suggest an intentional or unintentional attempt to intervene into the political process of the upcoming presidential election ... For me personally to participate in an investigation that I know will or could easily lead to the above scenario and to the possible denial of rights due to the targets, subjects, witnesses or defendants is inappropriate. I believe it amounts to prosecutorial misconduct and violates the most basic fundamental rule of Department of Justice policy. I cannot be a party to such actions and believe that such would be detrimental to the Department of Justice, FBI, this office and to the President of the United States [George Bush]."

But Banks' statement didn't end the Bush White House's attempt to use the federal bureaucracy to damage its opponent. Albert Casey, the director of the RTC, testified that he had also heard from the White House just before the election, in a phone call from C. Boyden Gray, Bush's White House counsel.

Gray, according to Casey's testimony in deposition to Sen.
D'Amato's Whitewater committee, asked Casey if he "knew anything about an RTC
matter involving the Clintons." Casey said he did not, but that he
"would look into it and call Gray back." Casey immediately learned
from RTC executive William Roelle, who had seen it, that "there was
an RTC criminal referral involving the Clintons." He testified
that Roelle told him he "should not provide the Bush White House
with any information" about it. Casey said that before he could
call Gray back, Gray called him again saying, "Al, forget my request. I don't want you to tell me a thing."

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Gray, like Holiday, also swore under oath that he had no
"memory of ever having spoken with Casey about an RTC criminal
referral" involving the Clintons.

Also during that September, White House aides were using the State Department to get into Clinton's passport file to find any incriminating evidence that might be used in the campaign. Joseph DiGenova, Bush's U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, was appointed independent counsel to investigate the aides. His conclusion was, in effect, yes, they did it, and they
shouldn't have. It was a one-day media story. (In recent days, DiGenova has taken the lead in publicly defending Starr's aggressive investigative techniques.)

On Nov. 3, 1992, William Jefferson Clinton was elected
the 42nd president of the United States. In March 1993 U.S. Attorney Banks resigned to make way for a Clinton appointee, but
Bush factions remained burrowed within the Justice Department, the RTC and in the other banking agencies. For a short seven months, Republican attempts to use banking allegations to smear Clinton seemed quiescent.

After Clinton's inauguration, the fraud division of the
Justice Department concluded that the RTC's Whitewater referral didn't appear to "warrant any criminal investigation." Department of Justice trial
attorney Mark McDougal wrote, "No factual claims can be found in
the referral to support the designation of Mr. and Mrs. Clinton as
witnesses to criminal conduct." In addition, a 1996 investigation by
the San Francisco law firm Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro "found no evidence to support" even a charge of civil fraud
against anyone named. To this day, Starr has brought no criminal charges based on Lewis' original referral.

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In July 1993, the Clinton administration nominated Stanley Tate, a Miami Republican and real estate expert, to replace Albert Casey as head of the RTC. It would prove to be a fateful step. Tate was an East Coast
RTC director and an outspoken critic of government abuses of thrift
operators, as well as of the low prices the RTC was getting for
valuable S&L properties. Bush factions within the RTC set out to
destroy him. In retaliation for Tate's nomination, Lewis'
criminal referral on Whitewater was unearthed and sent to the new acting U.S. attorney in Little Rock.

Before longtime RTC executive Lamar Kelly left the agency,
he put Lewis and Iorio back to work on Madison Guaranty. By early
October they had developed nine new referrals and sent them to the
new acting U.S. attorney in Little Rock as well. Three named the
Clintons as potential witnesses to and beneficiaries of criminal activities.

Tate's nomination had set off numerous negative news
stories. For four months, Tate fought a losing public relations
battle while RTC factions leaked inaccurate and damaging accounts
about him to the press. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Don
Riegle, already burned in the S&L scandal as one of the Keating Five, refused to meet with Tate about his nomination hearing. In November, Tate decided
to bow out, saying, "I am not strong enough nor rich enough to
fight the federal government."

By then, late October 1993, Lewis had already leaked the existence of her new
criminal referrals to Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt, causing
the media uproar that culminated in Janet Reno's appointment of
the first Whitewater independent counsel, Republican Robert Fiske,
in January 1994.

Capitol Hill Republicans today claim that three of Lewis' nine new
referrals listed financial transactions that figured in the l995
trial of Jim and Susan McDougal and Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker,
but, significantly, Lewis was not called to testify in that trial.
Says Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times: "I was shocked when
Tucker was convicted. I followed the trial closely, and those loan
papers looked just like ordinary loan papers. I thought Tucker was
innocent, but the prosecutor managed to convince the jury that it
was fraud." In 1989, U.S. Attorney Banks had reviewed the transactions since used by Starr to convict Tucker, and had rejected bringing any charges on them.

In February 1994, Lewis surreptitiously tape-recorded an
RTC lawyer saying, "If they could say it honestly," RTC officials
in Washington "would like to be able to say that Whitewater did not
cause a loss to Madison (Guaranty)." Lewis leaked the tape to Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, who read an edited version of it on the House floor, and
threw in some hyped allegations against the Clintons for good
measure.

However, some of Lewis' RTC co-workers were at last emboldened to lodge complaints about her activities, and agency officials removed Lewis from the Madison probe.

On June 30, 1994, Whitewater independent counsel Fiske's
first report deflated Republican hopes by concluding that Vincent
Foster had committed suicide because he had been depressed over
defamatory, "mean-spirited and factually baseless" editorials about
him in the Wall Street Journal, and that he had mentioned
Whitewater to no one. Fiske's report also exonerated the Treasury
Department of charges that it had wrongly informed the Clinton
White House of Lewis' new criminal referral naming the Clintons.

A far more serious threat to Republican plans occurred in
July when the RTC finally drew up charges against Lewis and Iorio
for an agency investigation, among them improper disclosure of confidential
documents, secretly taping RTC employees (Lewis said the recorder
"turned itself on"), keeping confidential documents at home and using
government equipment for personal gain. Lewis admitted in a
deposition to the investigators that she had used her office to market
T-shirts and coffee mugs lettered "B.I.T.C.H -- Bubba, I'm Taking
Charge, Hillary." Lewis said the use of the word "bitch" was "in
no way intended to denigrate the first lady" and refused to admit
that it was improper to market a product that disparaged a witness
named in her criminal referral. Iorio, her superior, was
charged with permitting Lewis to do all of the above.

Most importantly, an RTC investigation of Lewis would undoubtedly have uncovered President Bush's involvement in the
original 1992 criminal referrals naming the Clintons.

Enter Kenneth W. Starr.

On Aug. 5, 1994, in a move that would bury the charges
against Lewis, a Republican-dominated three-judge panel removed independent counsel Fiske and
replaced him with highly partisan former Bush Solicitor General Kenneth Starr. The panel had been picked by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee to the Supreme Court who was raised to its top post by Ronald Reagan.

On Aug. 12, the RTC put Lewis and Iorio on administrative
leave. But the agency had moved too late to investigate the pair's participation in the political smearing of the Clintons. On Aug. 22, in his first official
act, Starr subpoenaed the RTC's records on Lewis. On Sept. 27,
he ordered the RTC to suspend its investigation of her and instead impaneled a grand jury to investigate those at the RTC who were investigating Lewis. Lewis and Iorio were reinstated at the RTC, and testified against the Clintons in November l995 Senate hearings.

In Lewis' 1995 appearance before the Senate Whitewater committee, she was confronted with her "lying bastard" letter, and
then was exposed as having lied about surreptitiously tape recording
the RTC lawyer. Lewis collapsed into tears, was briefly hospitalized and has since dropped from sight. Starr continues to protect her and the Bush administration by keeping under wraps the RTC investigation into her activities.

Both L. Jean Lewis' and Paula Jones' legal fees have
been paid by, among others, the Landmark Legal Foundation, an ultra-conservative organization for which Starr has worked even while serving as independent counsel and which is just one of the many groups funded by a Starr benefactor, far-right millionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. The arch conservative's largesse has funded most of the purveyors of anti-Clinton propaganda, including the huge "Vincent Foster was murdered" PR blitz. (Scaife also created the position at Pepperdine University for Starr that he announced a year ago he would take.)

And, to close the triangle, Linda Tripp's lawyer also has
close ties to Landmark Legal Foundation. Landmark Legal's president is Mark Levin, former chief of staff to Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who is now with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Starr's office maintains, after three and a half years,
that the Lewis case is still under investigation. But the evidence suggests that Starr has sat on the case in order to keep the Bush White House's knowledge and encouragement of Lewis' original Madison referral under wraps. Now he
has done the same with Tripp. By taking over the Jones case,
he has put Tripp's story and motivations and the extent of her connections to his own inquiry beyond the reach of the American people. It is all-important that Tripp's story be known.

It is equally vital to understand that Lewis' unfounded
and politically inspired first criminal referral is the original
basis for all the subsequent accusations, Whitewater charges,
innuendoes of sleaze, hearings, subpoenas, bestselling books
-- and new referrals -- that have dogged the Clinton
administration ever since. That bogus referral is the foundation
on which rests the now towering edifice of the Starr inquisition.

Starr's inquisition would not have been possible, however, without the
misleading and selective reporting of the news media that have
written the most about Whitewater. These reporters, working primarily for the Washington Post, New York Times and the New Yorker, have been thoroughly spun
by Starr and his cohorts. Starr has cultivated close relationships with the press corps that cover him -- they address him
reverentially as Judge Starr -- but none more so than with the Washington Post. The Post's legendary former executive editor, Benjamin Bradlee, remarked on C-SPAN last year, "In my book, Ken Starr can do no wrong;
he dismissed a $2 million libel suit that had hung over the Post
for seven years." In his 1995 memoir, Bradlee gratefully quotes
Starr's opinion in the libel case.

The cozy relationship between Starr and the Post has been demonstrated throughout the paper's four-year coverage of
Whitewater, during which the Post has been filled with
grand jury and sealed document leaks from Starr's office, and has been devoid of criticism of Starr and his investigation. While Starr stands sanctimoniously at the front door of the courthouse and tells the press about the "appropriateness" and "propriety" of his
investigation and dismisses Hillary Clinton's charge of his bias as
"nonsense," he shovels piles of self-serving and Clinton-damaging materials out the back door to the Post and the other news organizations.

When Starr inserted himself into the Jones lawsuit with his Lewinsky investigation, the Post did not mention Starr's 1994 (and, now we know, ongoing) involvement with the Jones case until Jan. 30, nine days after the Post broke the Lewinsky story, and only then in the face of the public's criticism of Starr and its overwhelming support for Clinton.

Until 1992, Republicans had held the White House for 20 of the previous 24 years. When Clinton came to Washington, he probably didn't fully appreciate that a large, hostile and very sophisticated Nixon-Reagan-Bush government-in-exile had resentfully decamped to join their brethren in Washington law firms, PR firms, wealthy think tanks and the news media and had burrowed into the bureaucracy. They are positioned to protect their past errors and outrages from discovery and primed to do Clinton as much damage as possible. They remain in place -- waiting to take over the White House and federal bureaucracy again.

And former Bush White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, who has
"no memory" of phoning the RTC in the 11th hour of the 1992
presidential election about a criminal referral that accused Bill
and Hillary Clinton of criminal wrongdoing? These days Gray is
making the talk-show circuit, defending Starr's ever-expanding investigation.
"I do not at all think his office is out of control," Gray wants us to know.


Mollie Dickenson

Mollie Dickenson's articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald and other publications. She is the author of "Thumbs Up," a biography of Reagan Press Secretary James Brady.

MORE FROM Mollie Dickenson

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Bill Clinton George W. Bush Hillary Rodham Clinton The New York Times Washington Post




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