Charles F.C. Ruff, the somber, unflappable lawyer who led President Clinton's successful defense against impeachment charges in the Senate last year, is leaving his post as White House counsel.
Ruff confirmed yesterday he would be leaving the post sometime this summer, but declined to comment on where he is going. A prominent member of Washington's legal community, however, said it is virtually certain that Ruff will return to his former law firm here, Covington & Burling.
White House officials said it had not been decided whether Clinton will replace Ruff by hiring from the outside or by promoting someone from within.
Ruff, 59, had a record of helping politicians in trouble when he became Clinton's fifth White House counsel in 1997. A heavyset man who uses a wheelchair, he became a familiar figure to millions of television viewers as the chief of Clinton's defense team before the Judiciary Committee of the House, which impeached Clinton, and the Senate, which acquitted him.
Unflamboyant, Ruff was widely respected by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress as a lawyer who doggedly defended his client but didn't engage in personal attacks or media ploys.
In a White House consumed by politics and spin control, Ruff was an apolitical antidote. He sometimes infuriated Clinton's political aides by refusing to divulge legal matters to them--even such essential facts as whether the president had been subpoenaed by a grand jury investigating the Monica S. Lewinsky affair.
In a Washington Post interview last year, Ruff said he planned to keep his White House job through the end of Clinton's term. The pace of the counsel's office has changed significantly, however, since the Senate acquitted Clinton in February and the Lewinsky scandal began fading from the headlines.
Some sticky matters remain, nonetheless. In April, a U.S. district judge found Clinton in contempt of court for giving intentionally false testimony about his relationship with the White House intern during his January 1998 deposition in the sexual harassment case filed by Paula Jones. Clinton did not challenge the ruling, but last month his legal team said he should pay no more than $33,737 in legal reimbursements to Jones and her lawyers.
Lanny A. Breuer, a Covington & Burling lawyer who was on Ruff's staff during the impeachment hearings, said yesterday: "I think Chuck will go down in history as, if not the finest, among the finest White House counsels ever."
A Columbia University law graduate, Ruff contracted a crippling disease as a young man working in Africa. He launched his legal career as the Justice Department's chief prosecutor of former United Mine Workers president W.A. "Tony" Boyle, who was convicted of making illegal campaign contributions. Ruff was the fourth and final Watergate special prosecutor in 1975-77. He served as U.S. attorney from 1979 to 1982, prosecuting members of Congress involved in the Abscam bribery case.
In private practice, he represented Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) in the "Keating Five" investigation; Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) in an investigation into the illegal taping of a rival; and Exxon Corp. in the criminal investigation arising from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
CAPTION: White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff begins his closing argument in Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton.