Jim Mokhiber provided reporting and research for "Secrets of an Independent
In August of 1994, Kenneth Starr replaced Robert Fiske as the independent counsel investigating "Whitewater," a complex knot of financial and real estate dealings in Arkansas involving the Clintons, the Whitewater Development Corporation, and the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan.
In the five years since his appointment, Starr, who served as Solicitor General during the Bush administration--and was frequently mentioned as a possible nominee to the Supreme Court--presided over a great expansion of the Whitewater investigation into other matters, including: possible misconduct in the firing of White House travel office employees; the unauthorized acquisition of some 700 confidential FBI personnel files by the Clinton White House; and legal issues arising from the President's relationship with a White House intern, Monica S. Lewinsky.
To date, Starr's $47 million investigation has led to twenty-four indictments, more than a dozen convictions, and, most notably, in December of 1998, the impeachment of the President. The Lewinsky investigation dominated national headlines for more than a year after the shocking initial disclosures in January, 1998. The resulting impeachment proceedings ultimately occupied all three branches of government; beginning in January, 1999, Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist presided over a trial in the Senate. On February 9, 1999, after a trial of some three weeks, the Senate acquitted the President.
Over the years, the political climate surrounding Starr's investigation grew increasingly heated. Starr's neutrality was debated, and the ethics and practices of the independent counsel's office in Little Rock were repeatedly questioned, especially with regard to press leaks. In September, 1998, Starr delivered to the House Judiciary Committee a preliminary report on the Lewinsky matter which, he claimed, contained "substantial and credible information. . . that may constitute grounds for impeachment." On November 19, 1998, Starr testified on these findings before the House committee. The next day, Sam Dash, the former Watergate prosecutor, resigned as Starr's ethics advisor, charging in an open letter that Starr had crossed the line into advocacy, "violat[ing his] obligations under the independent counsel statute." Starr responded in a letter of his own, arguing that his appearance before the House committee was lawful and that "a refusal to appear would have suggested that we have something to hide, or that we are unwilling to defend and stand by the written referral."
On the matter of grand jury press leaks, Starr's office has so far been cleared of wrongdoing: In September, 1999, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals voted unanimously to reverse District Court Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who had directed the Justice Department to conduct civil and criminal contempt proceedings against Starr's office and against the office spokesman, Charles Bakaly. Judge Johnson's July, 1999 order followed reports of a leak to the New York Times on a January 31, 1999 story which reported Starr's belief that the independent counsel had the authority to indict the President while Clinton was still in office. David Kendall, the President's lawyer, said he would appeal the Circuit Court decision; twenty-four additional allegations of leaks by Starr's office still remain to be probed.
On June 30, 1999, Starr declared an end to the Arkansas phase of the investigation with the announcement of a plea agreement with Webster L. Hubbell, formerly the third-ranking official in the Justice Department. In August, 1999, Starr said he would issue his final report "at the earliest practicable moment," assuring those who questioned the political timing of the report that the release would occur before the November, 2000 elections. But Starr would not be the author of that report: In mid-October, 1999, Starr announced his intention to resign as independent counsel. On October 19, 1999, Robert Ray, a career prosecutor who joined Starr's staff earlier in the year, was sworn in as Starr's successor. Of his decision to leave before the writing of a final report, Starr told USA Today: "It was important in light of the politicization of the process to step aside so that whatever actions of consequence that the office takes in the future, if any, will more likely be viewed by the general public as the considered judgment of career professionals who cannot, at least fairly, be characterized as having any political motive."
In May of 1995, the Special Division appointed Washington lawyer David Barrett
to investigate charges that Henry Cisneros, the Secretary of Housing and Urban
Development, had lied to FBI agents prior to his confirmation.
The charges stemmed from Cisneros' statements regarding financial arrangements
with his former mistress, Linda Medlar. Cisneros, the charismatic former mayor
of San Antonio, had admitted to the affair publicly in 1988. On September 12,
1994, the television show "Inside Edition" broadcasted excerpts of tapes Medlar
had made of her telephone conversations with Cisneros. In the tapes, Cisneros
seemed to suggest that he had deliberately misled investigators about payments
he had made to Medlar. The tapes also included Medlar's warnings, and
Cisneros' denials, regarding possible illegalities in his relationship with
flamboyant businessman and longtime Democratic supporter Morris Jaffe.
On March 13, 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno requested an independent
counsel look into the case. In her application to the Special Division, Reno
noted that while there was not enough evidence to merit further investigation
of Cisneros' relationship with Jaffe, an independent counsel should examine the
false statements aspects of the case.
Initially, Medlar agreed to cooperate with the investigation. However, after investigators began to question some of the information Medlar provided, they
turned on and eventually indicted her. In January, 1998, Medlar pled quilty to
several counts of bank fraud, money laundering and false statements. She received a 42 month prison sentence.
Cisneros was indicted on 18 felony counts of false statements, conspiracy to defraud and obstruction of justice. In September 7, 1999, he pled guilty to a single misdemeanor count of making false statements to the FBI about the amount of money he paid Medlar. Cisneros will pay a $10,000 fine, with no jail time or probation. As of September 1999, Medlar (now known as Linda Jones, after her divorce) is still in prison in Fort Worth, Texas. The four year investigation is estimated to have cost $9 million.
On July 6, 1995, Daniel Pearson was appointed independent counsel and
charged with investigating Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown's financial
Charges in the Brown case centered upon whether Brown had "accepted things of
value" - reported to total $500,000 in 1993 -- from Nolanda Hill, a Dallas
businesswoman. Brown and Hill jointly-owned a company, First International
Inc., and were also linked through a series of complex financial transactions
involving Hill's deeply-indebted media company, Corridor Broadcasting.
Pearson was also tasked with investigating whether Brown had improperly
omitted information from his government financial disclosure forms, or had made
false statements on a mortgage application in 1993.
Following the Secretary's death in an airplane crash in Croatia on April 2,
1996, the independent counsel investigation ended. In his November 1996 final
report, Independent Counsel Pearson noted that "the unfinished state of the
investigation and considerations of fairness preclude our office from drawing
conclusions about the allegations regarding possible criminal conduct by the
Secretary." Several aspects of the probe, however, were transferred to the
Department of Justice for further investigation.
In March of 1998, a federal grand jury indicted Hill and another Corridor
executive, Kenneth White, on fraud, false statements and tax evasion charges
resulting from the Justice Department's investigation. Hill and White have
pleaded not guilty. Though the grand jury did not specify Brown by name, the
indictment also suggested that Hill's `business partner and co-shareholder at
First International Communications Corp.' -- apparently a reference to the late
Commerce Secretary -- had personally benefited from money funneled through
business entities and a lawyer.
Hill made more headlines in March when she alleged in other testimony that the
White House had sought campaign contributions from businesses in exchange for
spots on government trade missions overseas. At the time, the Justice
Department was reported to be studying whether the claims were sufficiently
specific and credible to initiate a new independent counsel investigation. A
Department of Justice spokesperson refuses to comment on Hill's charges or to
confirm the existence of any inquiry.
Not all of the independent counsels who have looked into the Clinton
Administration's dealings have come up with scandal and indictments. The
exoneration of Eli Segal, a Clinton confidant and former chief of staff of
Clinton's 1992 campaign, stands in sharp contrast to other recent
investigations of executive branch officials.
At issue in the Segal case were allegations arising from his role in three
organizations, including Clinton's pet project AmeriCorps, its parent
organization the Corporation for National and Community Service, and a
non-profit known as the Partnership for National Service. Most seriously,
Segal was accused of violating conflict of interest regulations preventing him
from fundraising for the Partnership while employed as a government official in
the other entities. Attorney General Janet Reno requested the investigation in
the fall of 1996, and the Special Division named retired District of Columbia
Superior Court Judge Curtis Emery von Kann to lead it.
From the beginning the Segal investigation was different from other recent
probes. In response to a request from Reno, the investigation was placed under
seal, and kept confidential. The existence of the investigation was not even
publicly known until it was noted in a Fall 1997 GAO audit of expenditures.
Moreover, Von Kann conducted his largely part-time investigation without a
large staff and without resorting to subpoenas or grand juries. Von Kann found
that while Segal might have violated the letter of the conflict of interest
law, possibly at the misdemeanor level, prosecuting him was "neither viable nor
desirable." In a similar way, omissions on Segal's disclosure forms did not
seem to be "knowing and willful" and were deemed not worth prosecuting.
In the end, Von Kann noted a host of reasons, including Segal's consistent and
credible testimony and lack of personal gain, for declining prosecution and
bringing his investigation to a halt nine months after its inception.
The sixth independent counsel investigation into the Clinton administration
centered on Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and his role in the rejection of an American Indian tribe's application to open a casino in Hudson, Wisconsin.
In mid-October, 1997, the Department of Justice opened an initial inquiry into
the matter after press reports detailed allegedly conflicting claims Babbitt
had made about a July 1995 meeting with gambling lobbyist Paul Eckstein. On
October 30, 1997, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee heard testimony
from both Eckstein and Babbitt about the matter, and the Justice Department's
inquiry quickly zeroed in on the statements each gave at that time.
In his congressional testimony, Eckstein claimed that Babbitt had told him
during their 1995 meeting that he had been contacted directly by White House
Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes about the matter. Eckstein quoted Babbitt
as saying that Ickes had requested quick action on the casino application --
which was denied that same day. Eckstein further alleged that Babbitt, a
former friend and law school classmate, had noted during their meeting that
several American Indian tribes opposed to the casino had given half a million
dollars to Democratic party organizations.
Babbitt, however, told Committee members that he had invoked Ickes' name in an
"awkward" attempt to hurry a persistent lobbyist out of his office, and not
because of any political pressure being applied to his Department to turn down
the application that day. Babbitt also claimed to have no recollection of
having mentioned political contributions by American Indian supporters of the
On March 19, 1998 the Special Division tapped Carol Elder Bruce, a former
Deputy Independent Counsel in the 1980s investigation of Attorney General Edwin
Meese, to head up the inquiry into possible false statements made by Babbitt to
Congress. Bruce's investigation involved the interview, or grand jury testimony, of more than 450 people, as well as the review of some 630,000 pages of documents. On October 13, 1999, Bruce's office said there was insufficient evidence to seek a criminal indictment of Babbitt or anyone else involved in the decision to reject the Chippewa casino application. The investigation, costing an estimated four million dollars and lasting nineteen months, proved much less costly and more brief than most of the other Clinton administration independent counsel investigations.
On May 11, 1998, Attorney General Janet Reno formally requested an independent
counsel to look into influence-peddling allegations involving Labor Secretary
Alexis Herman, and on May 26 the Special Division appointed attorney Ralph I. Lancaster
to the case.
Reno's request was the result of an inquiry triggered in November when a West
African businessman charged that Herman, a White House aide during Clinton's
first term, had sought kickbacks and illegal campaign contributions in exchange
for business favors.
Laurent Yéné of Cameroon claimed that Herman received payoffs --
possibly totalling $4,500 -- as part of an agreement in which she would receive
a ten percent cut of any business she steered to a company he owned with her
close friend, Vanessa Weaver. Yéné further alleged that Herman
had suggested that the company's clients, including some foreign nationals,
would receive preferential treatment from the Clinton administration if they
contributed to the Democratic National Committee. Justice Department
investigators also examined Yéné's claim that he had conveyed an
envelope containing $10,000 in cash from Weaver to Herman in the Spring of
The Attorney General's decision to request an independent counsel came after
five months of investigation -- the maximum allowed under the law. According
to press reports, Justice officials were deeply divided over whether or not
Reno should request an outside prosecutor. In her eight-page application to
the Special Division, Reno noted that the Justice Department had found "no
evidence clearly demonstrating Secretary Herman's involvement in these matters,
and substantial evidence suggesting that she may not have been involved."
Nevertheless, the Attorney General ruled that further investigation was
warranted, given that the Justice Department had been unable to determine
whether Yéné's claims were credible.
Lancaster will be the seventh independent counsel to investigate the Clinton administration.
Click here for a chart illustrating all independent counsel investigations since the
enactment of the law in 1994.