WASHINGTON (CN) - Shining a light on Ken Starr’s 20-year-old investigation of President Bill Clinton, a federal judge ruled Monday that many of the records have been kept secret despite prior orders to unseal.
Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell signed the order Monday shortly after receiving a letter from CNN’s senior counsel on behalf of the network and reporter Katelyn Polantz.
“Given that the present administration faces the possibility of compelled presidential testimony and the application of various privileges, there is a keen public interest in learning more about how those interactions took place during the 1998 clash between an independent prosecutorial body and the executive branch,” CNN senior counsel Drew Schenkman argued.
In the last year, as Congress has taken testimony from members of the administration about allegations of collusion in the 2016 election between the Trump campaign and Russia, President Donald Trump’s executive privilege has been a recurring theme.
Sarah Chayes, who researches corruption at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said CNN’s request makes sense.
"I think it's really important that this material be unsealed,” Chayes said in a phone interview. “It's critical that any precedent there is be available to the public in the current context because the president, for the moment, is placing himself above the law by refusing to be interviewed by the special counsel.”
In his letter to the court, CNN counsel Schenkman noted that President Clinton’s decision in 1998 to volunteer testimony before the grand jury mooted court consideration of his legal arguments about whether a sitting president could be subpoenaed.
A number of courts did weigh in, however, when other government officials received grand jury subpoenas as part of the Starr investigation.
Schenkman said these “dockets and all of their contents remain shrouded in secrecy,” despite the widespread media attention the case garnered.
Judge Howell found this secrecy on Monday to be largely excessive.
Indeed seven of the eight docket numbers that CNN flagged are referenced in Starr’s 1998 report to the House of Representatives.
Howell noted that the docket numbers for these seven miscellaneous matters “have already been unsealed and should have been made publicly available,” pursuant to a 1998 order of the D.C. Circuit.
They were kept secret, however, because “no specific direction was provided to the Clerk’s Office as to which documents included in the Starr report were to be disclosed,” according to the ruling.
“The Clerk’s Office rightfully carefully maintains the confidentiality of sealed matters unless expressly directed to unseal records,” Howell added.
Going forward, however, Howell said the Clerk’s Office to disclose, among other things, “the documents from those matters that have been revealed in full in the Starr report.”
Howell also noted that former Chief Judge Norma Holloway Johnson also entered orders to unseal certain documents in five of the cases, and that various other documents were never sealed in the first place.
These documents should thus be made public as well.
Noting that some of the matters at issue have been unsealed, however, Howell invited the the Justice Department “to provide its view, if any,” on unsealing the remaining records. This insight is due Feb. 23.
Any of the individuals subject to the eight grand jury subpoenas or otherwise involved in these matters should also be afforded “an opportunity to inform the court of their views,” the ruling concludes.
They can address privacy concerns if there are any in camera and ex parte.
Shenkman declined over the phone to comment on Howell’s ruling.
The dockets at issue involve testimony from eight individuals including Bruce Lindsey, an attorney from Little Rock, Arkansas, who is now chairman of the Clinton Foundation.
Lindsey served as President Clinton’s national campaign director in 1992 and then as assistant to the president and deputy White House counsel.
Other dockets involve former Clinton aide Sid Blumenthal; Clinton’s former special counsel, Lanny Breuer; former White House staffer Nancy Hernreich; and members of the Secret Service.
“White House documents” and “presidential subpoena” round out the first seven dockets.
Judge Howell notes that the miscellaneous case number for the eighth matter is not identified in the Starr report.
Described as “Unknown — Terry Lenzner and Investigative Group Intl., Inc. subpoena,” the litigation history of the matter is summarized in an appendix, according to a footnote of Howell’s order.
Chayes, whose book “Thieves of State” was published in 2016, said the case merits a close eye.
“I think it will be interesting to see what case they can make for leaving these 20-year-old documents sealed, if that is indeed what the clients want,” she said.
CNN reporter Polantz emphasized in an article Monday that Clinton’s testimony before the grand jury came after six months of negotiations with Starr's lawyers.
As such the sought-after records “could show how special counsel Robert Mueller may pursue testimony from President Donald Trump as well as other grand jury appearances and documents,” Polantz wrote.
CNN made a similar argument in its Feb. 9 request: “There is much to be learned from reviewing the procedures utilized to gain compliance with a grand jury subpoena over executive branch objections, both in proceedings before the court but also as to the pre-conflict interactions between the parties typically included as exhibits to motions and memoranda.