A federal judge has ruled that Kenneth Starr did not grant Monica Lewinsky immunity from prosecution, a decision that renews pressure on the former White House intern to testify about allegations of sex, perjury and her relationship with President Clinton.
Judge Norma Holloway Johnson's decision, filed under seal, is a setback for Lewinsky, who denied under oath that she had a sexual relationship with Clinton but talked about having such a relationship and efforts to conceal it in conversations recorded by a former colleague, according to people who have heard the tapes.
The decision removes a major impediment for investigators, one that had put the inquiry in limbo in recent weeks, and enables prosecutors to move forward with one of several options. These include reaching a deal with Lewinsky that may or may not involve charging her; compeling her to testify before the grand jury; and prosecuting her.
Still, it could be many weeks, or even months, before the Whitewater independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, decides what legal action to pursue. A number of significant witnesses have yet to appear before the grand jury, including Linda Tripp, Lewinsky's former colleague at the Pentagon.
It was Tripp who prompted the investigation when she took more than 20 hours of secretly recorded conversations she had with Lewinsky to Starr's office.
Moreover, investigators appear to be continuing to try to corroborate the tapes with independent evidence, such as testimony from Lewinsky's friends about her relationship with Clinton and from White House officials, a process that does not appear to be likely to end any time soon.
One of Lewinsky's lawyers, William Ginsburg, and Charles Bakaly, a spokesman for the independent counsel's office, declined to comment about Johnson's decision. The lawyers who described the ruling Wednesday spoke on condition of anonymity.
Johnson has warned the lawyers that disclosure of her sealed rulings could prompt her to take action against them.
Since January, Starr has been investigating whether Lewinsky or others "suborned perjury, obstructed justice, intimidated witnesses or otherwise violated federal law" in the sexual misconduct lawsuit brought by Paula Jones against Clinton, according to an order by the federal panel of judges that oversees the independent counsel.
Both Lewinsky and the president denied under oath in the Jones lawsuit that they had a sexual relationship. Ginsburg had argued in a secret proceeding before Johnson that lawyers in Starr's office had conferred immunity on Lewinsky after negotiations. But the prosecutors responded that while they had proposed an immunity arrangement, an actual agreement was never reached.
When Ginsburg made his motion, relations between Lewinsky's lawyers and the prosecutors had badly deteriorated. As part of the immunity negotiations, Lewinsky had offered to testify that she had had a sexual relationship with the president. However, she would not go as far as she did on some of the tapes in describing efforts to discourage her from being truthful in the Jones suit, according to people who are familiar with the contents of the tapes.
If Lewinsky refuses to testify, prosecutors could compel her to answer questions before the grand jury by granting her immunity. The immunity would be limited in nature. Any evidence gleaned from the testimony could not, even indirectly, be used against Lewinsky. But she could still be prosecuted for making false statements if she is not truthful in her testimony.
This month, Jones' lawsuit was dismissed. Prosecutors say that as a legal matter, the dismissal has no bearing on the criminal inquiry. And Wednesday, Jones' lawyers filed a formal notice of appeal.
Jones' lawyers said they would ask the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis to overturn the April 1 decision by Judge Susan Webber Wright in Little Rock, Ark., that Jones' lawsuit was groundless. Wright ruled that even if Clinton had made a crude sexual advance in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991, as Jones alleged, she could not prove damage justifying a federal trial.
Starr also appears to be nearing a decision about whether to seek new charges against Webster Hubbell, the former associate attorney general, that he failed to pay taxes on significant income he received in 1994 after stepping down from the Justice Department.
Between leaving the department in the spring of 1994 and pleading guilty at the end of that year to two felony counts, Hubbell received more than $700,000 from jobs arranged for him largely by close friends and supporters of Clinton.
Hubbell completed a prison sentence last year for those counts, which involved bilking his former clients and law firm of nearly $400,000.
He has denied that any of the income he received in 1994 was intended to discourage him from cooperating with investigators examining the Clintons' dealings in Arkansas.
_ Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.