Exit Kenneth Starr, after 2 1/2 years and many taxpayer dollars


WASHINGTON -- Maybe the next time an independent counsel is appointed to investigate serious allegations against a president and his wife, the job should impose a requirement that its taker finish the job.

Unfortunately, however, practicing law, even on the public payroll, is not the same as signing up for a hitch in the Army, so there's no way to force Kenneth Starr to see through the Whitewater investigation he took on two and a half years ago.

In retrospect, it's easier to understand why Democrats were so disturbed about Mr. Starr's appointment in the first place. He was named by a three-judge panel after complaints from Republicans in Congress that the original Whitewater independent counsel, Robert Fiske, had been appointed by President Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno.

Ms. Reno asked the judicial panel to reappoint Mr. Fiske, but instead it removed him and named Mr. Starr. Mr. Fiske, though himself a Republican, had dismayed Republicans by reporting that he had found no criminal wrongdoing in a series of conversations between White House and Treasury aides about aspects of Whitewater involving federal regulators. Moreover, he said, he didn't think the suicide of White House aide Vincent Foster was in any way related to Whitewater.

Prior to Mr. Starr's appointment he rather injudiciously met with North Carolina's two ultraconservative Republican senators, Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth, and one of the three judges assigned to appoint the counsel, precipitating Democratic wails of complaint. Mr. Clinton subsequently made no attempt to conceal his feeling that he was being sandbagged.

Mr. Starr, for his part, proceeded to demonstrate a curious brand of independence in his conduct in the job. He seemed to see nothing untoward about continuing his private law practice, including representing the tobacco industry at a time President Clinton was leading a crusade against sale of its products to American children. And he hasn't let his position stand in the way of hitting the speech-making circuit before conservative audiences.

A tempting offer

The manner in which Mr. Starr has now cavalierly announced that he is abandoning the significant public trust placed in his hands is an affront to the whole notion of public responsibility in the legal profession. No doubt the offer to become a dean at Pepperdine University, a sparkling campus on the Pacific shores of Malibu, California, was hard to resist. But Mr. Starr at 50, already a former federal appellate judge and solicitor general of the United States, wasn't likely to go on welfare if he passed it up.

Remarkably, Mr. Starr apparently failed to anticipate that the news would trigger wide speculation that he wasn't able to get the goods on the Clintons. Now he is obliged to insist that no conclusion has been reached, and that his departure won't have any impact on the investigation.

But unless his replacement is named from the existing Whitewater investigative staff, it seems inevitable that there will be further delays, and another round of controversy over the selection of the new independent counsel and his qualifications.

The Whitewater affair is complicated enough, still leaving most Americans confused about what's at stake, without this latest procedural complication. As the investigation drags on, moreover, it likely will become eclipsed by the other major investigation involving the president, which is much more understandable to voters -- the bizarrely excessive fund-raising operation for his re-election campaign.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Whitewater investigation, Mr. Starr has besmirched his public record by leaving the appearance either that he is giving up on a bad job or putting his own career ahead of a major public-service responsibility he accepted. Either judgment is a poor payoff to him for his substantial efforts up to now. And in his bailing out before a verdict is rendered, the taxpayers are getting short-changed in their lawyer's fee to him.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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