WASHINGTON -- In a decision that could narrow the duties of all independent counsels, a U.S. District judge yesterday quashed an indictment by Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr against Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Henry Woods in Little Rock marked the first time that a defendant has successfully challenged the scope of an independent counsel probe, even though politicians have debated the issue since the position was first created in response to Watergate more than 20 years ago.
Mr. Tucker, a Democrat who succeeded President Clinton as governor in January 1993, hailed the ruling as a major victory in his bitter legal wrangle with Mr. Starr. But in reality, the ruling may mean more for the Clinton administration than it does for Mr. Tucker, who still must answer a second indictment brought against him by Mr. Starr.
There are four independent prosecutors investigating Mr. Clinton and his appointees, and the administration has often complained about the prosecutors' ability to conduct unfettered, wide-ranging inquiries. If the ruling causes the courts to more narrowly define the jurisdiction of the independent counsel -- as Judge Woods ruled -- it could have an impact on all of these probes.
White House officials declined to comment on the ruling.
Mr. Starr, who was appointed by the courts to investigate the president's controversial investment in a real estate deal known as Whitewater, announced that he would immediately appeal the ruling and request an expedited review.
The position of independent counsel has undergone several revisions since it was first created to investigate the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation in 1974 of President Richard M. Nixon. Under current law, independent counsels are appointed by the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia at the request of the attorney general.
Attorneys for Mr. Tucker argued that Mr. Starr exceeded his authority by bringing an indictment on June 7 against the governor and two co-defendants on charges of fraudulently obtaining a $300,000 government-backed loan for a cable television venture. He asserted that Mr. Starr's jurisdiction extends only to the matters related to the president's investment.
William H. Sutton, one of Mr. Tucker's attorneys, told Judge Woods during oral arguments that the law authorizing the appointment of independent prosecutors limited their authority to matters "demonstrably related" to the case.
Mr. Sutton said the case against Mr. Tucker is "not only not demonstrably related, it's not related at all."
Mr. Starr argued that he was given broad latitude to prosecute all cases that he encountered and that Judge Woods had no authority to restrict the scope of his investigation.