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Starr Declines to Retry McDougal, Steele

Kenneth Starr Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr announced Tuesday he would not retry Susan McDougal or Julie Hiatt Steele. (AP File Photo)

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  • Coverage of the McDougal Trial

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  • By Roberto Suro
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, May 26, 1999; Page A4

    Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr announced yesterday that he will not seek retrials of Susan McDougal and Julie Hiatt Steele, two women he accused of hindering his investigations of the president but whom he failed to convict this spring when the separate cases he brought against them ended in mistrials.

    In explaining his decisions, Starr said that it was proper to bring both cases initially, but that seeking second trials would raise important questions of "resource allocation." In addition, the court filing in the McDougal case cited the "near impossibility of seating an impartial jury" in Little Rock, where McDougal was a much-publicized figure in the Whitewater financial scandal.

    "Thus although we are confident that the evidence supported the charges, we must also exercise sound and prudent judgment about whether to seek a retrial," Starr said in court papers filed in the McDougal case.

    "What a bunch of wimps," said Mark J. Geragos, McDougal's lawyer.

    Starr's decisions yesterday bring to a close two lingering subplots in his multiple investigations of President Clinton and leave his office with little left to complete other than its final reports and one other prosecution. Starr still has two sets of charges, each to be tried separately later this year, against Webster L. Hubbell, the former associate attorney general and law partner of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

    Both McDougal and Steele faced prosecution earlier this year on allegations that they had deliberately impeded Starr's investigations. McDougal refused to testify regarding Clinton's truthfulness about matters stemming from the Whitewater land deal. Steele was a minor, even distant figure, in the Monica S. Lewinsky perjury and obstruction of justice investigation that led to Clinton's impeachment.

    The case against Steele ended in mistrial May 7 after a federal jury in Alexandria deadlocked -- 9 to 3 in favor of conviction -- over whether Steele lied under oath in the matter of her longtime friend Kathleen E. Willey, a former White House volunteer who alleges she was groped by Clinton.

    Reached by phone, Steele said she was relieved Starr had decided to "finally exercise good judgment."

    "He must know finally that I'm guilty of nothing," Steele said. "It feels wonderful."

    Starr said in a statement on the Steele case, "We have carefully evaluated the appropriate course of action, and through a careful and thorough process, we have come to the conclusion that the case should not be retried."

    Steele's case turned on the question of when Willey told Steele about her alleged encounter with Clinton.

    Interviewed earlier this week, jury foreman Jack M. Hawxhurst said many on the panel were swayed by telephone records presented by the prosecution that he said showed Steele was lying about conversations she allegedly had with Willey, and believed Steele was not truthful with Starr's investigators.

    One juror, Mary Lyn Bourque, who was interviewed hours after the verdict was rendered, said Willey came across poorly and the evidence against Steele seemed insufficient to merit conviction. During the trial, Steele's lawyer denounced the charges against her as baseless and declined to call any witnesses in her defense.

    McDougal, who was convicted in 1995 on four felony charges related to Whitewater, refused in 1996 to testify before Starr's grand jury in Little Rock despite a grant of immunity. After she had served 18 months for civil contempt, Starr brought criminal charges for her continuing refusal to testify.

    On April 12, after nearly five weeks of trial, the jury acquitted McDougal on an obstruction of justice charge and pronounced itself deadlocked on two criminal contempt charges.

    "If there were people in Arkansas who didn't have an opinion about this case, it was an infinitesimal amount," said Mark J. Barrett, the associate independent counsel who prosecuted the case, explaining the difficulty of finding an unbiased jury for a retrial.

    Special correspondent Michael Haddigan in Little Rock contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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