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Starr appeal

Former Clinton foe pushed Colorado school vouchers

Former independent council Kenneth Starr was hired to help pass a school voucher bill, which failed this spring.
  • Former independent council Kenneth Starr was hired to help pass a school voucher bill, which failed this spring.

If you suspect that a vast, right-wing conspiracy is behind the efforts to implement school vouchers in Colorado, there may be compelling new evidence to support your theory.

As it turns out, a leading Denver-based pro-voucher organization hired Kenneth Starr -- the former independent counsel in charge of investigating President Bill Clinton's Whitewater business dealings that ultimately erupted in Monicagate -- as an adviser during the recent failed attempt to pass a voucher bill through the state Legislature.

And, in an attempt to tip the Legislature's balance in favor of the bill, Denver business tycoon and voucher backer Alex Cranberg offered to set up a meeting between Starr and state Rep. Mark Cloer, a Colorado Springs Republican, who was leaning against the proposed legislation.

Pretty much the expert'

The Colorado Alliance for Reform in Education (CARE), a nonprofit organization whose leaders include Cranberg and Springs developer Steve Schuck, hired Starr's Washington, D.C.-based law firm in the spring to advise it on constitutional issues surrounding the bill, confirmed Dan Njegomir, a spokesman for the organization.

A previous voucher proposal, approved by the Legislature in 2003, had been struck down when a judge ruled it violated the Colorado Constitution by infringing on the authority of local school districts.

Starr, who did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story, currently works for the law firm Kirkland & Ellis.

"Among legal minds that look at school-choice issues, they are pretty much the experts," Njegomir said of the firm. "We just wanted their input on the legislation."

Starr also volunteered to speak about school vouchers at a luncheon that CARE sponsored for a group of legislators, Njegomir said.

Starr has been involved in voucher issues before. He served as a board member of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal organization that supports vouchers, and the conservative Bradley Foundation also hired him to help defend Wisconsin's school-voucher law when it was challenged in court.

Breakfast meeting

Njegomir said he wasn't sure to what extent Starr had been personally involved in the work Kirkland & Ellis was hired to do.

However, asked about reports that he had been offered a sit-down with Starr, Rep. Cloer confirmed last week that Cranberg had urged such a meeting.

Cloer had voted for the 2003 voucher bill but was leaning against the 2004 version, saying he was concerned that it also would be found unconstitutional because it would direct state money to be spent on private schools.

With the bill heading for a close vote earlier this year, Cranberg met with Cloer over breakfast to try to persuade him to back the legislation. During the breakfast, Cranberg invited Cloer to sit down with Starr to discuss his constitutional concerns, Cloer said.

"To be honest, I'd love to meet with Ken Starr," Cloer told the Independent. However, he says he declined the meeting because he didn't believe it would change his mind.

Njegomir said he didn't know about Cranberg offering Cloer a meeting with Starr, and Cranberg couldn't be reached for comment.

Cloer ended up voting against the voucher bill, even after Gov. Bill Owens personally lobbied him to support it. His decision helped tip the balance against the bill, which failed on a 33-32 vote.

Since his vote, Linda Stahnke, who is pro-voucher, has announced plans to challenge Cloer in the August Republican primary.

-- Terje Langeland

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