Ken Starr's heavy hitter

How ironic that Jackie Bennett is the independent counsel's point man for talking to the press, since he has a track record of subpoenaing reporters and compelling them to testify.

Published July 17, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

One of the key players behind independent counsel Kenneth Starr's vigorous investigation of President Clinton is his chief deputy, Jackie Bennett Jr., a career prosecutor with a Texas-honed reputation for bare-knuckle tactics. Until recently, Bennett, 41, had kept a low profile -- but then Starr identified him as the source of many media leaks from his office in his recent interview with Brill's Content magazine.

"Jackie has been the primary person involved in that," Starr told Steven Brill. "He has spent much of his time talking to reporters."

There's a certain irony to Bennett's role as a source, because he is also one of the few federal prosecutors in the country who has successfully subpoenaed reporters and forced them to testify.

Bennett, who was formerly with the Justice Department's Public Integrity Division, made his name in San Antonio in 1993 with the successful prosecution of former Democratic Rep. Albert Bustamante on racketeering and bribery charges. In that case, Bennett subpoenaed two reporters from the city's dailies, the Express-News and the Light, to testify about their stories.

According to former Light reporter Kevin Johnson, "Bennett wanted a recitation of what we found with respect to Rebecca Bustamante," the former lawmaker's wife, who was also indicted but acquitted. "I didn't think that was the function of reporters," Johnson continued. "The article spoke for itself." (Johnson now works for USA Today as part of that paper's team covering the Starr investigation.)

"It's very aggressive," said Marty Garbus, a veteran First Amendment attorney, of Bennett's tactic. "It doesn't happen that often." According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Attorney General Janet Reno approved only 11 subpoenas to reporters in 1993, and three of those were later withdrawn.

But Bennett is nothing if not aggressive. His work in Texas during the early 1990s left a trail of bitter adversaries and a federal judge who believes Bennett pursued a "rinky-dink" case in order to "get" somebody. The judge, Lucius Bunton, said in an interview that Bennett typified a breed of "overzealous prosecutors." In fact, it appears that many of the tactics that critics complain about in the Whitewater case were also on display in the cases Bennett tried in San Antonio.

"He's a bully," said San Antonio attorney Gerry Goldstein, whose client was prosecuted by Bennett but acquitted. "I'm not sure you need to take your office and use the full power of that office against every potential witness no matter how large or small.'' Lawyers and witnesses who opposed him in San Antonio said Bennett used grand juries to subpoena, threaten and generally bully anyone he thought was lying. Several are still afraid to talk about him.

"It was Bennett's successful prosecution of Bustamante that brought him to the attention of Justice Department superiors, earning him the Justice Department's top honor for prosecutors, the John Marshall Award. Bustamante, who has just completed serving three years in an El Paso jail for racketeering and bribery, is appealing the verdict. "It's a scary system when they have that much power," he said in a telephone interview.

Bennett has some key supporters, however, notably Starr. And U.S. District Judge Edward Prado, who presided over Bustamante's trial, credits Bennett with being "very professional."

"He's tough but he played within the rules," said Prado, a former U.S. attorney. Justice Department trial attorney Mike Attanasio, who prosecuted the Texas cases with Bennett, said, "He's an extraordinarily gifted trial attorney. He believes very much in justice and what justice stands for."

Before winning the conviction of Bustamante, Bennett tried and lost a big-name case against San Antonio businessmen Morris Jaffe and his son Doug. Doug Jaffe, his real estate and oil and gas company, and two employees were charged with making nearly $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Democrats.

At one point in the investigation, Morris Jaffe said, Bennett asked Doug Jaffe to wear a recording device to a meeting with a longtime family friend, Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, D-Tex., apparently to get information on campaign contributions. Bennett made the offer in return for leniency, Morris Jaffe said. Doug Jaffe refused.

Gonzalez, who is retiring from Congress this year and who rarely accepted political contributions during his 37 years in Congress, was never accused of wrongdoing in the case. In the end, all of those indicted were acquitted by the jury in a case that earned the prosecutors an unusual rebuke from Bunton, the presiding judge.

Bunton, who was asked to oversee the high-profile trial because he did not live in San Antonio, told the prosecutors to tell their Justice Department superiors not to bring any more "rinky-dink" cases and not to send them on a "witch hunt."

"This was strictly a political thing," Bunton said in an interview. "Somebody was out to get the Jaffes because of their politics. They brought a case that should never have been brought."

Bennett, a big man who played offensive tackle in college, demonstrated in early May why he is considered Starr's most pugnacious prosecutor. He sent a letter to President Clinton's attorney, David Kendall, accusing him of making "reckless, irresponsible and false" allegations in a motion seeking to put Starr in contempt for allegedly leaking secret grand jury testimony. Bennett threatened to seek court sanctions against Kendall and other White House officials who had signed the motion.

It was vintage Bennett. On the other hand, given Starr's recent revelations about Bennett's own role working with the press, maybe his deputy was simply following one version of the old football maxim "The best defense is a good offense."

By Maria Recio

Maria Recio is a correspondent in the Washington bureau of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram covering politics and economics.

MORE FROM Maria Recio

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Department Of Justice Texas Washington