WASHINGTON -- When Kenneth W. Starr steps down from the Whitewater investigation this summer, the 3-year-old inquiry will continue with the appointment of yet another independent counsel, Starr said yesterday.
News that Starr will leave by Aug. 1 to become dean of Pepperdine University's School of Law, which he confirmed yesterday, has jolted the Clinton administration's fiercest allies and its sharpest critics.
White House staff reacted yesterday with cautious optimism, apparently in the belief that Starr would not be walking away so soon if he planned to bring criminal charges against the president or the first lady. On the other hand, conservatives said they were angered and bewildered by his decision.
"This would be like Marcia Clark resigning just before the trial," said Floyd Brown, a conservative activist, referring to the O. J. Simpson lead prosecutor.
For his part, Starr sought yesterday to dispel the notion that his impending departure meant that his expensive 2 1/2 -year investi- gation had run out of gas.
"The investigation is going to go on for some time," he said in an interview with the Associated Press. "We've made very substantial progress, and we're very much in the investigative -- and evaluative stage."
Recently, Starr compiled a memo summarizing his evidence involving President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and he hired two career federal prosecutors to lend an outside perspective. But he said yesterday that some important witnesses had not yet come forward and that no decisions had been reached.
Starr has led the Whitewater investigation since taking over from Robert B. Fiske Jr., who was appointed special counsel by Attorney General Janet Reno in January 1994. Starr's departure clears the way for the appointment of a third independent counsel by a panel of federal appellate judges.
In the interview, Starr declined to say whether he would prefer that one of his own staff members take over.
Left 'in good hands'
A successor would be able to draw on Starr's assistants and the evidence they have amassed. A source close to Starr said he felt confident that the investigation would be left "in good hands."
It is still possible that Starr may issue a report, which could be highly critical of the president or the first lady, before turning the investigation over to his successor.
The White House reacted initially to news of Starr's imminent departure with tentative relief that the long Whitewater saga could be nearing an end without any criminal charges brought against the Clintons. But the appointment of another prosecutor keeps alive the possibility of any outcome, including indictments reaching the White House.
From the start, Starr's tenure drew criticism. While serving as a special prosecutor, Starr, a partisan Republican, remained active private practice, representing a host of conservative clients, including tobacco companies engaged in legal battles with the Clinton administration.
In November, James Carville, a Clinton friend and political adviser, embarked on a highly publicized offensive against Starr. Carville accused Starr of engaging in a "right-wing" personal vendetta against the president and the first lady.
Brown suggested that Starr had been "worn down" by the attacks on his character. "Ken Starr has been subjected to one of the most vicious and brutal coordinated campaigns, choreographed right out of the White House -- with Carville as the chief attack dog," he said.
Carville himself wasn't sure what to make of Starr's unexpected announcement, but he suggested that Starr had been unprepared for the heat that came his way.
"I don't think the guy had ever been hit before," Carville said. "He was sort of like: 'I'm Ken Starr, I always did well in school, always was respected, I'm a fine Christian gentleman. How can they talk about me like this?' "
Feelings of betrayal
Starr also had been criticized by those on the opposite side of the political spectrum for not being aggressive or fast enough. Yesterday, some conservatives said they felt betrayed by his plans to leave.
Larry Klayman, chairman of the conservative Judicial Watch, said his supporters were angry. "Given the amount of money spent by taxpayers, they expected more," Klayman said. "The impression is, when you accept a job, you take it to completion. You don't quit."
Klayman and others theorized that perhaps Starr had failed to produce enough evidence to indict the president or Mrs. Clinton on the kind of charges that would produce convictions, and that he decided to take an attractive job offer while it was available.
Last weekend, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Starr had conducted "mock trials" in Little Rock and Washington and failed to obtain convictions from the paid "jurors."
Starr's office issued a statement yesterday flatly denying that story. "We have conducted no such mock trials," the statement said. But the newspaper said it was standing by its story.
At the White House, top aides were mum about what they believed were the implications of Starr's impending departure. Partly this was because Clinton's press secretary, Mike McCurry, put out a pointed directive instructing aides not to discuss Starr -- on or off the record. But partly it was because no one seemed to know exactly what to make of it.
"Look, we don't have a clue what it means," McCurry said. "And we have no comment on it."
Pub Date: 2/19/97