Kenneth in Wonderland

When Kenneth Starr gave up his Scaife-funded Pepperdine chair, it was a tacit admission that long-standing charges of conflict of interest were valid. Now it's time for him to give up his investigation

By Andrew Ross

Published March 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Connecticut lawyer Frank Mandanici said it best after listening to Kenneth Starr's bizarre press conference Thursday, in which he announced that he would not be taking the Pepperdine University job after all: "It's like if you rob a bank and you give the money back -- that's no defense."

Unfortunately for Mandanici, who has been waging a lonely legal battle to have the independent counsel removed for conflict of interest, Starr may very well get away with it -- unless we wake up to the Alice-in-Wonderland world into which Starr has now taken us.

For Starr, what was not a problem 14 months ago, when he accepted the Pepperdine chair funded by arch Clinton-hater Richard Mellon Scaife, has suddenly become one. Why? Not because he suddenly realized that accepting the post was a clear conflict of interest, but because the end of his investigation -- presumably in sight in February 1997 when he accepted the Pepperdine job -- is now, in April 1998, "not yet in sight." This despite the imminent demise of the Whitewater grand jury, his avowed "satisfaction" with the Monica Lewinsky investigation and the leaks to the Washington Post that his report to Congress is already being written.

So, we are to believe that Starr's endless investigation of the president of the United States will now stretch so far into the future that he must, out of consideration for the Pepperdine search committee, decline the chair that has been reserved for him in perpetuity.

This is all pure Jabberwocky, of course. It was no coincidence that on the same day that Starr cut the most glaring tie to his Clinton-hating patron, he offered to investigate charges that his star Whitewater witness, David Hale, was paid by operatives working for that same patron. Even Starr, a man for whom the concept "appearance of impropriety" has no meaning, must have realized that he couldn't have his Scaife seat and eat his witness cake too.

Starr assures us that his investigation of Hale will be conducted "in a careful and thoughtful way." His investigation will no doubt be most careful indeed, considering that if the allegations that Hale was paid off are found to be true, Starr's entire investigation might collapse and some of his colleagues, if not Starr himself, might one day wind up in the defendant's box on charges of witness tampering. Of course it helps Starr that Theodore Olson, his former law partner and former attorney for Hale, is now "auditing" the money that allegedly went into Hale's pocket via the American Spectator.

Starr has other reasons to feel sanguine. Two months ago, he said he would investigate charges that his own office was leaking secret grand jury testimony to the press. Such leaking is a crime, but we have heard nothing since, neither from Starr nor from Washington's eternally vigilant press corps. Neither has the press been too concerned (although a judge is) with the manner in which Starr's agents sweated Monica Lewinsky for hours at the Ritz-Carlton, careful to keep lawyers away. With both Lewinsky and Susan McDougal -- and quite possibly with Kathleen Willey -- there has been a seeming pattern by the independent counsel of trying to make the stories fit the charges. In the real world, this is often called subornation of perjury, but in Starr's world it is standard operating procedure, and no one yet has called a halt.

Maybe it is time to do just that. For the independent counsel to say, after four years and $30 million, that the end is "not yet in sight" is plain madness. The blindness he has demonstrated in the face of massive ethical violations, prosecutorial abuses and possible criminal activities conducted by his own office threatens to shroud the entire country in a malignant darkness. Like Paula Jones, Kenneth Starr's existence has become totally defined by the drive to persecute. One way or the other, it is time for him to go, and allow the country to climb back out of the rabbit hole into which his investigation has plunged us.

During the Army-McCarthy hearings, Joseph Welch ended a national nightmare with these simple, searing words: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" But Starr appears to possess no such sense, and therefore needs to be ushered forcefully from the stage. A public firestorm erupted in 1973 over the firing of Nixon special prosecutor Archibald Cox. But Starr's departure would more likely be greeted with an avalanche of huzzahs and ticker-tape parades across the land.

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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