U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson cited 24 instances of alleged grand jury leaks to the news media in ordering an investigation of whether Starr's office violated secrecy rules, newly unsealed court documents revealed Friday.
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Johnson found "a prima facie violation" of grand jury secrecy rules starting Jan. 21, the day the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted in news reports.
Some of the reports over the following five months referred to "federal law enforcement sources" and "sources close to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr" as providing the information.
Johnson noted that a television network news report "explicitly identifies 'prosecutors' as disclosing evidence gathered as part of the grand jury investigation."
Judge Holloway (AP)
The story was a Jan. 22 account on NBC of the "talking points" document that Lewinsky said she wrote so that friend Linda Tripp could provide testimony in the Paula Jones case that would be helpful to President Clinton.
"This evidence, the `talking points' document, was likely to be presented to the grand jury," Johnson wrote. "The law in this circuit makes it perfectly clear that government attorneys may not reveal documentary evidence that is likely to be presented to the grand jury."
In the Sept. 24 decision, made public Friday, Johnson ordered that an outside expert be appointed to assist her investigation into whether Starr's office illegally leaked grand jury evidence.
"Due to serious and repetitive prima facie violations" of grand jury secrecy rules, "a complete and thorough review of these allegations must be undertaken," the judge wrote.
The outside expert, whose name was deleted from the newly released papers, has wide-ranging authority to subpoena documents from Starr's office and question current or former members of Starr's staff.
Legal experts following the case call the inquiry a major development.
"For the first time, you have a federal judge who is saying that Kenneth Starr may have engaged in wrongdoing," says CBS News Legal Consultant Andrew Cohn. "Imagine, the Clinton folks are going to point to this as yet another example of Kenneth Starr overreaching, of Kenneth Starr overexhibiting."
Thirteen of the 24 news reports Johnson cited were by television networks, eight were by daily newspapers and three by magazines.
A Feb. 5 report on CNN referred to "sources in Starr's office," suggesting that prosecutors were prepared to bring charges against Ms. Lewinsky if she did not negotiate an immunity deal.
"According to this news report, these OIC (Office of Independent Counsel) sources disclosed the status of immunity negotiations with a potential target of the grand jury and the possible indictment of this target," the judge wrote.
A Feb. 4 New York Times article cited by the judge referred to an unidentified federal investigator as saying that one of Lewinsky's dresses had tested negative when checked in a laboratory for evidence of a sexual encounter with the president.