WASHINGTON - The Whitewater independent counsel concluded yesterday that an investigation that consumed six years and $52 million had found insufficient evidence to charge President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton with any criminal wrongdoing.
The anticlimactic conclusion to the inquiry into a 12-year-old Arkansas land deal removed a black cloud that had hung over the president almost from the moment he took office. It comes just four months before his term ends - though for the first lady, who is in the midst of a Senate campaign, the report may be far more consequential.
"This office determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that either President or Mrs. Clinton knowingly participated in any criminal conduct," concluded Robert W. Ray, who succeeded Kenneth W. Starr as independent counsel last October.
Though White House officials were relieved, spokesman Joe Lockhart avoided gloating, saying he would "leave it to the American people to make up their own minds on whether this was a useful exercise."
Mrs. Clinton was similarly low-key in her response, saying: "Now everybody can just move on."
The investigation, which began as an inquiry into the land deal and the collapse of an obscure Arkansas savings and loan called Madison Guaranty, nearly crippled the Clinton presidency. The longest independent counsel investigation in history, it eventually sprawled out into inquiries into the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr., the firing of the travel office staff, the alleged misuse of FBI personnel files, hush money, tax evasion and the president's cover-up of his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.
It led to the convictions of 12 people, including an Arkansas governor and a former associate attorney general, and to the impeachment of a president - all on issues that were, at most, tangential to the land deal. But in the end, the two central targets - the Clintons - were left legally unscathed by the investigation into the land deal.
Investigators will continue to pursue whether White House staff members intentionally withheld e-mail correspondence from the independent counsel. And Ray has impaneled a new grand jury to determine whether the president should be charged after he leaves office with lying or obstructing justice in the Lewinsky matter.
But the investigation into the Clintons' murky Arkansas business dealings that launched it all "is now closed," Ray wrote in a six-page public statement.
'What took so long?'
Though the White House response was subdued, others - Democrats and Republicans alike - questioned why an investigation that produced no charges against the Clintons could have been so protracted and so costly.
"What took them so long?" asked Richard Ben-Veniste, who was the Democratic chief counsel during exhaustive Senate Whitewater hearings, which concluded in 1996.
Two years later, during House impeachment proceedings, Starr told the House Judiciary Committee that his office would not seek indictments of the Clintons in the Whitewater matter. Yet the case remained open until now as the counsel's office pursued other matters, including that of Lewinsky.
"What was the purpose of proceeding beyond 1996?" asked Michael Chertoff, the Republican chief counsel during the Senate hearings. "This should have been wrapped up two to three years ago."
With President Clinton's political career nearing an end, it is the first lady, in the midst of her campaign for the Senate from New York, who had the most to lose - and now perhaps the most to gain - from the Whitewater report.
"I'm just glad that this is finally over," Hillary Clinton said in Albany, N.Y. "And I think that most New Yorkers and Americans had made up their mind a long time ago about this."
Regardless of how the investigation turned out, many New Yorkers are weary of the mention of Whitewater, analysts say.
"New Yorkers don't care about Whitewater; good or bad, it doesn't matter," said Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Urban Research Center.
To Democrats, Ray's conclusions only increase sympathy for their candidate. But to Republicans, the reminder of the Whitewater scandal - even with Mrs. Clinton's exoneration - provides a powerful backdrop as she faces allegations that she used the Lincoln Bedroom as a reward for New York campaign supporters.
The Whitewater probe
The roots of the Whitewater investigation are obscure, dating to a land deal that long predated Clinton's presidency and a savings and loan's collapse.
The savings and loan had been owned by James and Susan McDougal, Clinton business partners who had persuaded them to invest in the real estate development known as Whitewater. The thrift's collapse was caused, in part, by the failure of that development, at a cost to taxpayers of $73 million.
The McDougals were convicted in a 1996 fraud trial stemming from the collapse of Madison Guaranty. Jim Guy Tucker, the governor of the state, was also found guilty.
The independent counsel specifically investigated whether the president lied during that trial when he testified that he never borrowed money from the failed thrift and that he did not know of a $300,000 loan to Susan McDougal that benefited the Whitewater investment.
The crux of the Whitewater investigation focused on the fraudulent diversion of money from Madison Guaranty to prop up a real estate investment that potentially would have benefited the Clintons, and whether either Clinton played a role in that diversion.
Starr and Ray also investigated whether the first lady lied to federal S&L; investigators about work her Rose Law Firm did for Madison Guaranty, and whether she obstructed justice by withholding billing records that disappeared, then mysteriously reappeared at the White House in 1996, 18 months after they were subpoenaed.
Finally, Starr and Ray investigated whether consulting fees that Clinton supporters paid to Webster L. Hubbell, a longtime Clinton friend and former top Justice Department official, constituted "hush money" designed to keep Hubbell from testifying against the Clintons.
Hubbell - who served 18 months in prison for overbilling clients, only to be indicted again by Starr once he got out - famously proclaimed: "The office of the independent counsel can indict my dog. They can indict my cat. But I am not going to lie about the president or first lady or anyone else."
In all these matters, Ray concluded tersely that the evidence was "insufficient" to prove wrongdoing "beyond a reasonable doubt." He did, however, fault the White House for delaying the disclosure of evidence and for filing claims of immunity "that were eventually rejected by the courts."
How close the independent counsel came to prosecuting either Clinton is still unclear. Starr's deputies in Arkansas at one point did draft an indictment of the first lady but did not file it.
Joseph DiGenova, a former independent counsel and Starr confidant, said investigators were hamstrung in recent years by the refusal of Susan McDougal to testify against the Clintons and by the death in 1998 of her former husband, James McDougal, who died in a federal prison in Texas while serving a 3 1/2 -year sentence for fraud stemming from Madison's collapse.
That left the independent counsel with only one major witness, David Hale, a former municipal judge who alleged that Clinton had urged him to extend a fraudulent loan to Susan McDougal. But Hale, a convicted felon, was hardly an unimpeachable witness.
"Without Jim McDougal alive as a witness, this case was going nowhere," DiGenova said. "It was legally impossible."