IT'S HARD TO remember these days the hubbub last year over the Arkansas Project and Whitewater witness David Hale. At the time, however, it was a big headache for independent counsel Kenneth Starr. The essence was that Mr. Hale, a key witness in several Starr prosecutions, had been paid thousands of dollars by conservative activists working for the American Spectator to dig up dirt on the Clintons in Arkansas. The insinuation was that these payments were in exchange for testimony damaging to the president. What's more, the money came ultimately from right-wing philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife, godfather of the mythical vast right-wing conspiracy.

The question was whether Mr. Starr had recklessly relied on a tainted witness, a man in the pay of the president's foes. His critics were confident that he had, and argued further that he had a potential conflict in investigating the allegation as well. A compromised David Hale, after all, would jeopardize convictions in which he was invested, and Mr. Scaife was also the financial backer of Mr. Starr's abortive job offer at Pepperdine University. Mr. Starr responded by turning the matter over to an outside investigator, Michael Shaheen Jr., who would report not to Mr. Starr but to two retired federal judges.

The allegations, in combination with the many others hurled at Mr. Starr, contributed to the undermining of his investigation -- diverting attention from Mr. Clinton's behavior, and making it difficult to have a sober discussion about whether and to what extent the Starr probe had actually veered into excess.

So it is worth noting that Mr. Shaheen has now finished his probe, and he appears to have found nothing untoward with respect to Mr. Starr's handling of his witness. Mr. Shaheen declined to prosecute anyone, finding -- according to a statement by the retired judges that was released by Mr. Starr's office -- that "many of the allegations, suggestions and insinuations regarding the tendering and receipt of things of value were shown to be unsubstantiated or, in some cases, untrue." Mr. Shaheen found that "in some instances, there is little if any credible evidence establishing that a particular thing of value was demanded, offered or received. In other instances, there is insufficient credible evidence to show that a thing of value was provided or received with . . . criminal intent."

While this appears to confirm backhandedly that Mr. Hale received some money, it suggests that there was, after all, no effort to buy his testimony. Mr. Shaheen, moreover, appears to have concluded that Mr. Starr was not reckless in relying on Mr. Hale. Will any of Mr. Starr's critics, who readily assumed that he was at least that, now admit they were wrong?