Anyone who has read my work over the last year or so knows I’m no fan of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. In fact, I would dare say, I have been as critical of him as any commentator this side of political hitman James Carville. No, I haven’t advocated that Starr be knee-capped, as Carville did, but I do think he’s done a lousy job of investigating Clinton administration corruption.

Far from being the aggressive, partisan, ruthless, get-Clinton-at-any-cost prosecutor he is portrayed as by the White House, the establishment press and political shills like Carville, Starr is really a pussycat — maybe even the best political ally the president has right now.

That’s why it’s so amusing to watch Starr demonized as one of the central figures in “the vast right-wing conspiracy.” He let Webb Hubbell off the hook. He whitewashed the Vincent Foster cover-up. David Hale, the most cooperative witness in the Whitewater investigation, is still rotting in jail. And he never figured out who hired Craig Livingstone or why 2,000 FBI files were floating around the White House.

But Starr makes a convenient scapegoat for the White House. Virtually all the public knows about Starr is what the administration has spoon-fed it through the media. He’s no hard-charging crusader. Rather, he is a colorless, uncharismatic bureaucrat who, at this peculiar moment in history, just happens to hold the fate of the nation in his hands.

Having said all that, it might surprise you to hear that I am now officially being accused of conspiring with Starr to bring down the president? That’s right. It might also surprise you to learn that, at the very time the House Judiciary Committee should be holding presidential impeachment hearings, it is actually conducting an investigation of Starr and his fellow “conspirators.” So, it appears, Congress may be closer to impeaching Kenneth Starr than Bill Clinton.

Here’s the scoop: Just two days ago, Rep. John Conyers, D-MI, the ranking member of the committee, wrote to conservative philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife demanding answers to a series of intrusive questions about his charitable contributions as well as a truckload of documents about his foundations’ connections to several non-profits, including my own Western Journalism Center.

“Among other things, I am interested in the extent to which these entities have been involved in funding or performing investigations, projects, reports, videotapes, books, articles and the like relating to President Clinton and allegations of wrongdoing by the president,” Conyers wrote.

In other words, Conyers is deeply concerned that Scaife and those he has supported are actually exercising their First Amendment rights. He wants an explanation as to why they have the audacity to investigate or criticize the president of the United States. He says he has asked Attorney General Janet Reno to review allegations of misconduct and conflicts of interest by Starr. Copies of the letter were sent to Reno and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde. Do you believe this? I swear I’m not making it up.

For the record, not that it’s any of John Conyers’ business, the foundations controlled by Richard Mellon Scaife have not provided as much as a plug nickel to the Western Journalism Center for the last three years. So, please don’t interpret this column as a defense of “my master.” Anyone who knows me at all would understand that is not the way I do business.

I just find it chilling that Clinton’s allies in Congress are opening up a new front in their battle to salvage this presidency. No amount of bluster, intimidation, coercion is too much for them. They’ll resort to anything — even a blatant attempt to violate the free speech rights of prominent, law-abiding Americans.

It’s not the first time this administration has tried to dry up the funds of Clinton critics. They’ve done it with direct threats. They’ve done it with IRS audits. Now they’re doing it through congressional investigations.

It strikes me as an old-fashioned witchhunt. Are you now or have you ever been a member of the vast right-wing conspiracy? Some conspiracy. I haven’t seen or talked to Richard Mellon Scaife since 1991 when I was editor of the Sacramento Union and he was a member of our board of directors. Our conversation then was, if I recall correctly, short and sweet.

But what of it? Suppose we did conspire together? Since when does the government have the right to snoop into the political and financial affairs of private citizens exercising their inalienable constitutional rights?

I’m no lawyer, but I would advise Richard Mellon Scaife to throw that letter in the circular file. And I’d advise Congressman Conyers’ colleagues to rein him in quickly with an ethics complaint for abusing his power and harassing and invading the privacy of individual taxpayers.

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