WASHINGTON -- In a sign that his investigation could be nearing an end, Kenneth W. Starr plans to step aside as the Whitewater independent counsel by Aug. 1 to become dean of Pepperdine University School of Law in California, school officials said yesterday.
The unexpected development fueled speculation that Starr had decided not to bring any indictments against President Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Neither the White House nor the Clintons' private attorney, David Kendall, had any comment on the news yesterday. But some presidential aides said privately that the announcement seemed to suggest that the Clintons themselves would not face indictment.
"It's inconceivable that he would be leaving and there would be any major cases brought in the future," said Joseph DiGenova, a Republican former special prosecutor and U.S. attorney. "It sounds like it's over. That's good news for the president."
Steven Lenley, provost of Pepperdine, said last night that Starr would likely join the school by Aug. 1. It is unclear whether Starr plans to have completed the Whitewater investigation by then or whether he intends to hand over the remaining work to his staff.
If his work is not finished, it is possible his departure could result in the appointment of another Whitewater independent counsel.
Lenley said Starr would be at the university in Malibu, Calif., "in full capacity."
"The role will be full time," he said. "It will require his full-time attention."
Starr's office did not return phone calls seeking a response. But Starr told ABC-TV: "My decision has been guided entirely by a sense of what is a wonderful and right opportunity for me and my family. But in the meantime, I'm off to Little Rock this evening, and it's full-steam ahead."
The 50-year-old special prosecutor, who has headed the Whitewater investigation for the past 2 1/2 years, had recently reached a point in his investigation at which he was deciding whether to bring indictments against the president or the first lady, or both.
This month, he compiled a memo of several hundred pages summarizing the evidence that his office had gathered involving the Clintons.
And he hired two career federal prosecutors to help examine the weight of the evidence and to provide an outside perspective.
DiGenova said Starr still could issue a final report that is harsh and politically damaging to President Clinton without issuing indictments. Another special prosecutor, James C. McKay, did so in 1988 after investigating Edwin W. Meese III, who was attorney general in the Reagan administration.
"McKay said he wasn't going to prosecute for various reasons, even though [he concluded] laws were violated," DiGenova said.
Buttressing the speculation that Starr would bring no indictments against either of the Clintons was a report published over the weekend by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The report said that Starr had conducted mock trials in Little Rock and Washington with his evidence and had failed to win any convictions from the assembled "juries."
The newspaper, quoting a source close to the investigation, said Starr's prosecutors brought counts of perjury and obstruction of justice at the mock trials conducted in Washington. In the light of the acquittals in the mock trials, the sources said, Starr was fine-tuning his investigation and re- interviewing witnesses.
The most serious allegation directed at President Clinton came from a former municipal court judge in Little Rock who is a convicted felon. The former judge, David L. Hale, asserted that Clinton, as Arkansas governor, pressured him to make an improper $300,000 loan. Clinton has steadfastly denied that assertion.
Starr took over the Whitewater investigation from Robert B. Fiske Jr. in August 1994, and since then has won convictions and guilty pleas from several of those close to the Clintons.
Last year, a Little Rock jury convicted James B. and Susan H. McDougal, the Clintons' partners in the Whitewater land deal that is at the heart of the controversy, as well as former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker.
In 1994, Webster H. Hubbell, a Clinton friend and former top Justice Department official and law partner of Hillary Clinton, pleaded guilty to bilking his former law firm. Hubbell was later sentenced to 21 months in prison for wire fraud and tax evasion.
James McDougal, who is to appear in court April 14 for sentencing on his conviction on 18 felony charges, has been cooperating with Starr's office and apparently now supports the allegation that Clinton pushed for the improper $300,000 loan. His former wife, Susan McDougal has refused to cooperate and has begun serving a prison sentence for refusing to testify before a grand jury.
The Whitewater inquiry began as an examination of President Clinton's connection to a failed Little Rock savings and loan run by McDougal, and his land deal in partnership with the McDougals.
Over the course of the Clinton administration, however, the investigation has sprawled in many directions to include everything from Hillary Clinton's role in the firing of the White House travel office to the administration's improper handling of classified FBI files to the question of how Mrs. Clinton's law firm billing records disappeared and then mysteriously appeared in the White House.
Conservative groups have been especially pressuring Starr to bring perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges against Mrs. Clinton for several incidents. These critics question her testimony about legal work she performed in Arkansas and her role in the aftermath of the 1993 suicide of Vincent W. Foster Jr., who was deputy White House counsel.
As independent counsel, Starr has been sharply criticized by Clinton loyalists for maintaining his private practice and for representing clients hostile to the Clinton administration during his investigation of the first family. He will remain a partner at his firm, Kirkland & Ellis, working in its Los Angeles office while he is at Pepperdine.
A staunch Republican, Starr was appointed to the federal appeals court in 1983 by Ronald Reagan and, six years later, became solicitor general. He has previously taught at Pepperdine's law school and has served on its board of visitors since 1992.
Lenley, the Pepperdine provost, said that the university began its search for a new law school dean last fall and that Starr was among those who "allowed their names to be brought forward."
Pepperdine's president, David Davenport, offered the position to Starr several weeks ago. Starr accepted the position Friday, Lenley said. Starr will also head the university's new School of Public Policy as its founding dean.
"Kenneth Starr brings a breadth of experience and knowledge that is virtually unmatched," Davenport said in a statement.
Pub Date: 2/18/97