Former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr yesterday dismissed talk that his successor was in a conflict of interest because of his link to New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R), the likely Senate opponent of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Robert W. Ray, a career prosecutor who took over from Starr Oct. 18, was hired by Giuliani 10 years ago when Giuliani was U.S. attorney in New York.

"It's a bogus issue, a completely phony issue, designed to distract and to deflect," Starr said on NBC's "Meet the Press." Starr resigned earlier this month after five years probing President Clinton, most famously in the Monica S. Lewinsky affair.

According to sources close to Starr, one of the matters still open involves whether the first lady lied about the firings of the White House travel office staff early in the Clinton presidency. In the interview, Starr declined to say what issues are still under investigation. "I don't think I should comment on that," he said.

Starr praised Ray as a career civil servant with an unblemished record and noted that Giuliani left his job as U.S. attorney in New York before Ray joined.

"I don't think that anything can be said that there's any motivation on Bob Ray's part other than to get the truth, to complete the investigation and to make the final assessments," Starr said.

Starr also said he would have done a number of things differently if he were faced with the task again. Public confidence would have been greater, he said, if separate independent counsels had been set up for issues that arose after the original probe of the Whitewater land deal, such as the White House travel office and Lewinsky matters.

Continuing his law practice, even though he said it did not affect the efficiency of the independent counsel's office, also turned out to be bad for public confidence, he said.

CAPTION: Kenneth W. Starr

CAPTION: Robert W. Ray