Kenneth Starr's clumsy ploy simply heats up the partisan debate


WASHINGTON -- Independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr has never been more transparently political than in his clumsy attempt to force President Clinton to share responsibility for the new charges facing Susan McDougal.

The notion that the president could have been expected to urge any witness in the Whitewater case to testify is ludicrous. If Mr. Clinton wandered into that thicket, he would face a hundred questions about, for example, why he didn't apply similar pressure to Webster Hubbell or anyone else involved in the case.

But Mr. Starr has finally come to recognize that there is an important political and public relations component in his campaign to nail Mr. Clinton. That realization is obviously one of the reasons underlying the prosecutor's decision to hire Charles Bakaly as his spokesman.

It doesn't take a public relations genius, however, to know that many people see this new prosecution of Ms. McDougal as unfair double jeopardy. She has spent 18 months in jail as a result of a civil contempt proceeding that grew out of the same refusal to testify.

The civil contempt approach typically is used to prosecute organized crime figures. Forty years ago, several Mafia leaders were sent to jail for a few months when they refused to answer questions even after receiving a grant of immunity from prosecution. And there was always the threat to use the criminal procedure to heighten the pressure to testify.

But in those cases, the reluctant witnesses were dealing with such things as murder and racketeering, cases in which people ended up in New York City's East River with cement blocks tied around their ankles. Susan McDougal is a white-collar criminal who has been willing to do the time under the civil procedure rather than testify. Adding the criminal charge may be legally permissible but it is clearly piling on.

The key question here is what role, if any, Mr. Clinton played in helping his partners in the Whitewater land development, Susan and the late James McDougal, obtain a fraudulent $300,000 loan from the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan. The McDougals and then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker of Arkansas were convicted in 1996, and Ms. McDougal is serving a two-year sentence for bank fraud.

Mr. Clinton has denied any financial dealings with Madison Guaranty, which later went under at substantial cost to taxpayers. And Mr. Starr apparently has been unable to find a credible witness to the contrary. So now he is trying to score a public relations coup of sorts by making it appear that part of his problem has been Mr. Clinton's refusal to urge his old partner to testify.

In the five letters to the White House released by Mr. Bakaly, Mr. Starr claimed Mr. Clinton's comments about the case "reinforced Ms. McDougal's intransigence." By encouraging such unlawful behavior, Mr. Starr claims, the president "has raised an obstacle in this federal criminal investigation." But the examples of presidential rhetoric he cited were far too vague and ambiguous to be taken as urging Ms. McDougal to do anything.

It is true that Mr. Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton have become increasingly outspoken and acerbic in talking about Mr. Starr as the partisan lines in the investigation have been drawn ever more sharply. But even his most caustic cracks about the independent counsel wouldn't qualify as encouraging Ms. McDougal or anyone else to defy him.

In the end, what all of this suggests is that Mr. Starr is having a tough time making a case against the Clintons in the Whitewater matter that was the original reason a special prosecutor was named four years ago. The fact that he would have to rely on the testimony of a convicted felon raises some obvious questions about what he's got and what he's missing.

The one thing clear to everyone is that the partisan debate has been ratcheted up several notches by Mr. Starr's latest ploy. If anyone had any serious doubt about his motives, those doubts should be resolved now.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 5/08/98

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