By Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
Frustrated by McDougal's adamant refusal to testify about Clinton's involvement in questionable business dealings, Starr wrote that he became convinced the president's public comments had "reinforced Ms. McDougal's unlawful intransigence" and called on Clinton to correct the situation.
"We believe that the President, wittingly or unwittingly, has encouraged her unlawful behavior," Starr wrote White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff on Feb. 14, 1997, in the first of a series of letters released yesterday as McDougal was indicted on criminal contempt charges for repeatedly refusing to testify before a Little Rock grand jury. "In effect, the President, who is . . . charged by the Constitution with the faithful execution of the law, has raised an obstacle in this federal criminal investigation."
Ruff rejected the suggestion that Clinton publicly urge McDougal, who has already served an 18-month sentence for civil contempt after refusing to testify, to speak with the grand jury. Ruff said such a move would be not only unprecedented but also "entirely inappropriate."
"The President has neither said nor done, wittingly or unwittingly, anything in the slightest degree improper, and I reject the suggestion that he has somehow encouraged Ms. McDougal to violate the law," Ruff wrote on April 4, 1997.
Each side released its copies of the extraordinary exchange of letters yesterday after Starr's spokesman told reporters that the president had refused to urge McDougal "to testify truthfully before the grand jury," prompting an outraged response from the White House. "This claim is wholly false," Clinton's private lawyer David E. Kendall said.
McDougal has refused since 1996 to answer questions before a Little Rock grand jury related to what Clinton knew about a fraudulent $300,000 loan that partially funded a land purchase by the Whitewater Development Corp. and whether the president testified truthfully when, under oath, he denied knowing about it.
Clinton has never publicly said McDougal should comply with the court orders compelling her testimony. During his 1996 reelection campaign, he refused to rule out pardoning McDougal and seemed to sympathize with her allegation that Starr wanted her to lie to help prosecutors build a case against the president.
But Starr's letters to Ruff suggested that Clinton's statements were a winking message to McDougal. In particular, Starr cited a PBS interview on Sept. 23, 1996, just two weeks after McDougal was first jailed for not testifying.
Asked about McDougal's contention that Starr did not care about the truth of her testimony, Clinton said, "There's a lot of evidence to support that." Asked if Starr was out to get him, Clinton said, "Isn't it obvious?"
Such comments, Starr wrote in an April 29, 1997, letter, amounted to "a President publicly indicating his essential agreement with a convicted felon's asserted reason for her continuing contumacious behavior."
In a June 6 follow-up, Starr suggested a precedent, recalling how Watergate figure G. Gordon Liddy was cited for contempt for refusing to testify in 1973 and how President Richard M. Nixon two weeks later urged him to tell prosecutors what he knew.
Such arguments apparently carried no weight with Ruff, himself a Watergate prosecutor. Ruff wrote back only twice, the last time on Nov. 17, and never mentioned the Liddy parallel. Instead, he said McDougal has her own lawyer who was "fully capable of advising her concerning her obligations" and added that Clinton's comments did not inject the president improperly into the investigation in an effort to keep her quiet.
"Whatever 'speculation' there may be to the contrary, as is true of so much speculation surrounding the Independent Counsel's investigation, is without any foundation in reality and is the product of misguided partisanship," Ruff wrote, adding, "Your allegation that he has bolstered Ms. McDougal's decision not to testify or has in any way impeded your investigation is utterly baseless."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company