Starr Will Stay With Probe
By Susan Schmidt
After four days of bruising public criticism, a humbled Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr reversed course and said he will not leave his post after all until the investigation is completed.
Starr appeared before an army of cameras late yesterday to announce he had made a serious mistake in agreeing to take an academic post at Pepperdine University in California on Aug. 1, a move widely interpreted as a sign his office will not bring any major prosecutions.
"My commitment is to the American people and to the pursuit of the truth, and I will seek to fulfill that commitment to the best of my ability and for as long as it takes. I deeply regret any action on my part that may have called that commitment into question," he said.
The usually self-assured attorney took himself to task in a 20-minute question-and-answer session with reporters.
"When I make a mistake, it's a beaut," Starr said, quoting legendary New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
Starr said he will go to Pepperdine "in the fullness of time," when the Whitewater investigation and any resulting prosecutions "have been substantially completed."
Starr repeatedly has said this week that the investigation is at a critical juncture in which evidence against President Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and their associates is being evaluated. Viewing his pending departure as a sign the investigation will yield no indictments would be "dangerous" and wrong, Starr has said.
Yesterday Starr said that his colleagues and others outside his office had convinced him it had been "unwise" and "imprudent" for him to have set a date for leaving his office.
"If a message was unintentionally sent, the message has been canceled," he said.
Friends, attorneys on his staff, partners at his law firm and editorialists all over the country have been strongly critical of Starr's decision, announced by Pepperdine on Monday, to take a position there as dean of the law school and of a new public policy school. He has been accused of placing personal career concerns ahead of his duty to see to conclusion an investigation of importance to the nation.
"I consulted inadequately with my colleagues in my office," Starr said. He said he has "trumpeted" the collaboration and collective reasoning he has fostered in the independent counsel's office, but when it came to making a momentous decision, he failed to seek or take their advice.
"I've learned my own lesson, the importance of the deliberative process," he said. Asked whether he was disappointed about not going to Pepperdine any time soon, he said: "I am more personally humbled than I am anything else."
Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney and independent counsel, said, "I think he made the 180-degree turn because the people in his office were furious about not being properly consulted. They felt they were being abandoned," diGenova told ABC News last night.
Starr cited a letter he received from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who said Starr's departure would have a "devastating" impact on the course of the investigation. Specter and other lawyers involved in the investigation said reluctant witnesses would be further dissuaded from testifying because they would see Starr's action as a sign the investigation is winding down.
The independent counsel's office is interested in acquiring information from former savings and loan co-owner Susan McDougal, a partner with the Clintons in the Whitewater real estate investment; Webster L. Hubbell, former associate attorney general and former law partner of Hillary Clinton; and former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker (D).
Starr's office won convictions against Tucker and McDougal on Whitewater-related charges. All three have declined to disclose what, if anything, they know about questionable actions by the Clintons.
Theodore Olson, a prominent criminal lawyer and friend who represents David Hale, one of the key witnesses in the Whitewater investigation, was quoted earlier this week as saying he did not think Starr would be leaving "if he was about to embark on a prosecution of historic proportions."
The comment seemed to have an impact on Starr and he mentioned it to reporters at a breakfast speech Wednesday.
Olson watched Starr's news conference and said he believes Starr did his best to rectify his mistake and take responsibility for it. "He did not say `Mistakes were made,' he said, `I made a mistake, I'm going to fix it and do the best I can.' The fact that he was man enough to stand up and admit it is a great thing."
Whether Starr's initial decision to accept the Pepperdine job will hurt the investigation in the long run remains to be seen. "I hope and I know he hopes this will be a hiccup and the investigation will go forward," Olson said. "I think he grew a lot this week."
Earlier this week Starr explained that he felt at ease leaving the investigation this summer because the important decisions will have been made by then. His office, he said, has been set up as a "microcosm" of the Justice Department, where the pervading culture is one of law, not personality.
He said his role is to bring his judgment to the evidence and the relevant law, not to sit at the prosecution table if there are trials.
He acknowledged earlier that it would be difficult for a new independent counsel to prosecute cases he had not been involved in investigating, but said one of his deputies or one of the attorneys on his staff could step into his shoes.
Starr said yesterday his vision of what the independent counsel is supposed to represent was not "sufficiently complete," noting that he must shoulder the responsibility for overseeing any high-level prosecutions.
He told reporters he had been in contact several times this week with the special three-judge panel that appoints independent counsels to apprise the judges of his intentions. He declined to say whether they tried to dissuade him from leaving.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company