New Whitewater prosecutor's GOP background disqualifies him, Democrats say

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Reflecting mounting anxiety and outrage over Friday's surprise appointment of conservative Republican Kenneth W. Starr to take over the Whitewater investigation, a group of House Democrats and Clinton supporters, including President Clinton's private lawyer, called on Mr. Starr yesterday to step aside.

Citing Mr. Starr's background as an official in the Reagan and Bush administrations and his more recent political activities, Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, an Ohio Democrat, said Mr. Starr's appointment as the new Whitewater independent counsel "screams of politics."


Although the White House has been noticeably restrained in its public comments on the appointment of Mr. Starr, Robert S. Bennett, the Washington lawyer who is representing Mr. Clinton in a sexual harassment lawsuit, said the public would question Mr. Starr's findings because of his partisan leanings.

Mr. Starr, who is to meet today in Little Rock, Ark., with the man he will replace, Robert B. Fiske Jr., has recently taken legal positions in opposition to Mr. Clinton, represented the Republican National Committee in a legal brief and displayed political ambitions of his own.


He has said that despite his political background, he intends to be "absolutely fair and impartial" in examining the Clintons' ties to a failed Arkansas savings and loan and the numerous tentacles of the complex Whitewater controversy.

But the administration and supporters on Capitol Hill recognize that the new appointment could cause political damage to Mr. Clinton.

Even beyond the debate over Mr. Starr's politics -- which threatens to make the Whitewater morass even more partisan than it already is -- the changing of the special prosecutors will mean a delay in the investigation and the prospect that $l Whitewater will hang over the presidency even longer, perhaps into the election year 1996.

What's more, White House officials fear the new prosecutor could decide to re-examine the "Washington phase" that Mr. Fiske had already finished and that Congress has just spent 115 hours probing.

Mr. Fiske concluded, to White House relief, that there was no criminal wrongdoing by the administration or any Whitewater connection to last year's suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr.

Just as administration officials thought they were in the clear after the completion of congressional hearings last week, they now face the possibility of new interviews, new subpoenas and new legal fees.

Mr. Starr has said he has not decided whether to reopen that part of the investigation or whether to simply review Mr. Fiske's work.

Either way, he is likely to seek inconsistencies among three sets of sworn testimony by White House and Treasury officials -- before a grand jury and before House and Senate committees.


Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary, said that Mr. Clinton supported renewing the special prosecutor law that enabled a panel of three judges to appoint a new independent counsel.

She said the president and his staff intend to "cooperate fully" with the new counsel.

But Democratic House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, who called the appointment "surprising," led a group of Democrats who suggested that Mr. Starr is too partisan to take the reins of the investigation.

"How can Mr. Starr take this job and expect to appear impartial with all this background noise?" Mr. Metzenbaum said. "Mr. Starr is not a bad man. But this thing just looks bad. It looks like a setup."

Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said he was "outraged" at the appointment.

Mr. Starr, a private lawyer in Washington who was solicitor general in the Bush administration and a high-ranking Justice Department official in the Reagan administration, had considered filing a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Paula Jones, the former Arkansas state worker who filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Mr. Clinton.


Although he decided against filing the brief, Mr. Starr has spoken out in protest of Mr. Bennett's position that a sitting president has immunity from lawsuits.

Mr. Starr did write a friend-of-the-court brief, however, on behalf of the Republican National Committee, which is supporting former Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh in a lawsuit filed against him for unpaid bills from his unsuccessful 1991 Senate bid.

Mr. Starr considered running as a GOP candidate in this year's Virginia Senate race, has contributed to Republican candidates and has served as co-chairman of a Virginia congressional campaign.

In addition, the three-judge panel that appointed Mr. Starr is headed by federal appellate Judge David B. Sentelle, a Reagan appointee with close ties to conservative Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

The judicial panel said last week that it was making the move to avoid "perceptions of conflict," because Mr. Fiske had been appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno in January before Congress renewed the independent counsel law.

After the law was re-enacted, Ms. Reno recommended to the judges that Mr. Fiske be kept on.


Aside from his obvious political bent, Mr. Starr's lack of prosecutorial experience is another area of concern for the administration.

Mr. Fiske, a former U.S. attorney, had earned a reputation as a cautious prosecutor, one who would not bring a charge unless he was certain he could win a conviction. Mr. Starr, who has never been a prosecutor, might be more inclined to bring charges even if he thought the case was not airtight.

The executive and legislative branches are waiting to see how Mr. Starr proceeds in the next few days. Along with the issue of whether to reopen the "Washington phase" of the investigation is another significant question that could affect how Whitewater plays out:

Will the new independent counsel retain an entire new staff, a move that would set back the investigation almost to its starting point, or keep much of the Fiske team?