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Top Clinton Aide's Sleuthing Questioned by Federal Judge

By David Willman
and Ronald J. Ostrow
Los Angeles Times

It was not a telephone call that a lawyer practicing in New Hampshire would expect. But on the line that day in January was Bruce R. Lindsey, a White House official.

What, Lindsey wanted to know, did the lawyer's client, a retired chief White House steward named Michael J. McGrath, know about the president and a former intern, Monica S. Lewinsky? Lindsey, said a source familiar with the conversation, "was trying to take a barometer of the facts."

After reviewing Lindsey's actions, a federal judge has sharply questioned why a lawyer on the government payroll was doing this kind of sleuthing.

"The court questions the propriety of the president utilizing a government attorney as his personal agent in a personal attorney-client relationship," Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson wrote, in a 51-page opinion that she signed on May 1. Johnson is overseeing the independent counsel's investigation of Clinton's conduct with Lewinsky.

Lindsey's official title is assistant to the president and deputy White House counsel. His status as Clinton's right-hand man is well known in Washington.

But secret portions of court records in the case illuminate the presidential aide's special role as an intelligence and reconnaissance operative. The records show that Lindsey directly sought information from two other witnesses in the Lewinsky matter at the time the controversy was erupting: Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the Washington lobbyist who helped Lewinsky find a job, and, D. Stephen Goodin, the president's personal scheduler whose job had entailed shadowing Clinton through much of his workday.

Lindsey has refused to answer prosecutors' questions about his contacts with the witnesses or their attorneys, citing lawyer-client privilege.

Lindsey, 50, declined to be interviewed for this article. In extended comments last week, White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff defended the propriety of the role played by Lindsey.

"When he is discussing the president's official business with the president and performing his role as deputy White House counsel, I believe those conversations ought to be protected by the attorney-client privilege," Ruff said.

Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr wants to know what Lindsey said during his contacts and whether Lindsey crossed the line from innocuous fact-finding to implicitly coaching a witness' testimony.

Whether Lindsey must disclose under oath what he knows about the Lewinsky matter is the subject of a legal battle that will go to an appeals court Monday and, by next fall, probably on to the Supreme Court.

How the dispute is resolved stands to influence the conduct of government lawyers for years to come - and to shed fresh light on what Clinton's inner circle was doing in the frantic first days of the Lewinsky controversy.

Lindsey's contacts with the witnesses came near the time when federal investigators confronted Lewinsky on Jan. 16 in an Arlington, Va., hotel with evidence that she had had an intimate relationship with the president and lied about it under oath. The agents sought her cooperation in determining whether Clinton or others were involved in an illegal cover-up. They also sought other witnesses with knowledge of the matter.

Clinton has denied under oath that he ever had sexual contact with Lewinsky.

Lindsey's early contacts with the witnesses or their attorneys were important to Clinton, in part because the president was considering what, if anything, to say publicly about the nature of his dealings with Lewinsky.

Lindsey's efforts also would help in the preparation of Clinton's defense strategy, as the president and his lawyers sought to anticipate and parry Starr's moves. Through Lindsey's contact with McGrath's attorney, Clinton also could learn whether the retired steward was a first-hand, or hearsay witness to the alleged episode in late-1995.

Lindsey is also refusing to answer questions about his conversation several months ago with Jordan, who had been asked by the White House to help find Lewinsky a job in the private sector. Jordan also arranged for Lewinsky to be represented by a lawyer in Washington.

Goodin, the scheduler who was at the president's side for innumerable meetings and activities, declined to comment Thursday on Lindsey's contact. "I'm not going to talk about that kind of stuff," said Goodin, who left the White House about three months ago.

The propriety of Lindsey's actions involving the witnesses is a matter of intense dispute.

Starr maintains that government lawyers should not engage in such conduct. The government lawyers, Starr says, serve the interests of the people, not a single office holder - in this instance, President Clinton.

Johnson, in ruling last month that Lindsey must answer the questions before the grand jury, questioned the propriety of a government lawyer providing personal legal-defense services.