Prosecutor Starr to stay on job Whitewater counsel reverses decision to leave post by August

Calls mistake 'a beaut'

Departure had drawn severe criticism from conservatives in GOP

February 22, 1997|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Facing a storm of criticism in recent days, Kenneth W. Starr reversed his decision to step down this summer as Whitewater independent counsel and announced yesterday that he would stay on until the investigation was "substantially completed."

At a late-afternoon news conference, Starr acknowledged that his recent decision to leave the investigation by Aug. 1, to become the dean of Pepperdine University's School of Law in California, had been a major blunder.

"When I make a mistake, it's a beaut," he said, quoting the late New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and seeming surprisingly relaxed and upbeat after a tumultuous week.

Since the surprise announcement Monday that Starr planned to depart, he has been severely criticized by his allies in conservative Republican circles, in newspaper editorials across the country and by a U.S. senator.

Critics said his plan to leave took the steam out of his 2 1/2 -year investigation. They complained that it sent the message that Starr had already decided not to bring criminal charges against President Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton and thus made it less likely that reluctant witnesses would cooperate.

Starr said yesterday that he was reversing his decision in an effort to restore "public confidence" to the Whitewater investigation. He said he "deeply" regretted any action that may have called into question his commitment to the inquiry.

He said he would not join Pepperdine's law school until the investigation and any prosecutions, of high-level government officials -- including the president and first lady -- were substantially completed.

In explaining why he had initially decided to begin his job at Pepperdine in August -- a decision that caught the political establishment here by surprise -- Starr said he had believed that "my role and responsibility could be discharged during the time that was left."

'I had made a mistake'

But he said that, after consulting with colleagues in his office, he realized that "it was a mistake for me to set an arbitrary date in which I would conclude my duties as independent counsel."

"I think there was a fairly broad-based sense that I had made a mistake," he said of his staff's reaction.

Privately, White House aides had greeted the news of Starr's impending departure earlier this week with guarded optimism. They had no comment on yesterday's development.

Joseph E. diGenova, a Republican former independent counsel and U.S. attorney, said he thought Starr had made the 180-degree turn because people in his office were angry that they had not been properly consulted about his initial decision to step down. "They felt they were being abandoned," diGenova told ABC News.

In another interview, diGenova said he did not think Starr's decision to step down -- and then his sudden turnabout -- would hurt the investigation, but that it could hurt his career.

"In terms of his own reputation, it did hurt him very, very much," diGenova told Knight-Ridder.

Starr, saying he was "humbled" by the week's experiences, suggested that the barrage of public and private criticism had influenced his about-face, convincing him that he should "just keep my hand on the plow indefinitely."

He said he had "more than one" conversation in the past week with the special panel of judges of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that appointed him in August 1994. But he declined to say whether any member had pressured him to change course.

And he alluded to a letter sent to him this week by Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who urged him to reconsider. Specter warned that Starr's departure would have a "very serious, if not devastating effect on the investigation."

Starr said that, until the events this week, he had an "insufficient and incomplete" view of his role as independent counsel, unaware of his particular importance to the investigation. Instead, he said he had viewed his office as "a microcosm" of the Justice Department.

"Veteran as I am of the Justice Department, I've long had this assurance that as valuable as a particular individual may be, when he or she leaves, the function of government goes on."

The Whitewater inquiry, originally aimed at the Clintons' connection to a failed savings and loan in Arkansas and their dealings with the owner of the thrift, has been greatly expanded since the first independent counsel, Starr's predecessor Robert B. Fiske Jr., was appointed in January 1994.

The key question is whether Starr will decide to bring criminal charges against the president or first lady. Yesterday, he said it was "wrong" to assume from his earlier decision to depart that he had already concluded he would not bring any major indictments.

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