Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who has overseen the long-running Whitewater investigation, announced unexpectedly Monday he will leave his post this summer to become dean of Pepperdine University Law School in California.
The news of Starr’s departure was greeted happily by some in the White House on Monday night. They see it as a signal that Starr’s investigation has not turned up the kind of evidence that would warrant criminal charges against President Clinton or first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“There’s joy in Mudville,” said one official. Democratic surrogates and even the president himself publicly have charged that they believe Starr’s conservative Republican politics have biased his investigation of the Clintons.
But Starr and lawyers close to him cautioned against reading too much into his departure. “The investigation is proceeding without interruption. Everything is full steam ahead,” Starr said in a statement issued by his deputy, John Bates.
Bates said Starr will stay on as independent counsel until sometime this summer. On Aug. 1, he will take over as dean of the Pepperdine Law School as well as become founding dean of the university’s School of Public Policy. Starr also will continue some appeals court work for his law firm, Kirkland & Ellis.
“This was an opportunity that combined uniquely attractive participation in the law and public policy,” Bates said.
In speculating that Starr may not bring indictments and simply write a stinging report, Democrats on Monday cited stories in the Arkansas DemocratGazette over the weekend that Starr’s prosecutors are having a hard time making a credible case.
The paper quoted anonymous sources as saying that Starr is reworking his investigation after a test jury in two recent mock trials in Washington and two in Little Rock, Ark., said they would have acquitted the president and first lady of perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges.
This comes as other sources told the daily newspaper Newsday that lawyers on Starr’s staff have told superiors outside the probe they will be completing their duties by late this summer.
Even if optimists in the White House are right in believing that Starr is leaving because he does not have a strong case against the Clintons, another independent counsel almost certainly will have to be appointed. Starr’s office is slated to go to trial in September in a tax fraud case against former Arkansas Democratic Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and two co-defendants. Tucker was convicted along with the Clintons’ former business partners, James B. and Susan McDougal, in a Whitewater-related fraud case brought by Starr last year.
The news comes as Starr’s staff is evaluating evidence gathered in its three-year investigation. The office has been examining financial dealings by the Clintons in Arkansas and whether there were efforts to cover up those activities by the Clintons and their associates since they came to Washington.
The staff has prepared a detailed memo weighing the pros and cons of bringing charges against the president and the first lady, and decisions about how to proceed are expected soon, sources said. A number of current and former White House aides and Clinton friends also have been under investigation in the Whitewater probe and the sources said decisions are expected on some of them soon as well.
As Starr’s prosecution efforts heated up with the Tucker-McDougal trial last spring, friends of the president, notably political adviser James Carville, mounted a public campaign questioning Starr’s fairness and calling on him to resign. Critics, including spokesmen for the White House, cited Starr’s work for a tobacco company in a case against the Clinton Justice Department as evidence he had conflicts of interest.
In a PBS interview last September, Clinton was asked whether he believed Starr was out to get him and the first lady. “Isn’t it obvious?” he replied. That answer and his refusal to rein in Carville’s aggressive efforts to discredit the prosecutor drew criticism even from Democrats.
Pepperdine President David Davenport told the Associated Press that Starr felt comfortable leaving the independent counsel’s post this summer. “My assumption from talking with Ken in the interview process is that the investigation will go forward,” Davenport said.
Possible successors to Starr include:
W. Hickman Ewing, deputy independent counsel in Little Rock and former U.S. attorney in Memphis, Tenn.
Ray Jahn, assistant U.S. attorney in San Antonio, Texas, who has been on the independent counsel’s Little Rock staff and who was the lead government lawyer in the trial that convicted Tucker of fraud in a case related to the Whitewater investigation.
Jackie Bennett, a newly named deputy independent counsel and career prosecutor who had served in the Justice Department’s public integrity section.
John Bates, another career prosecutor who is leaving as the deputy independent counsel in Washington to return to the U.S. attorney’s office as chief of the civil section.
MEMO: Changed from Idaho edition.