WASHINGTON -- Looming over Kenneth W. Starr's announcement last week that he was withdrawing from jobs he had accepted at Pepperdine University was a man the Whitewater independent counsel said he had never met, talked to, or had any dealings with: billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
Like Starr, few profess to know Scaife, 65, heir to the Mellon oil and banking fortune. Yet, the reclusive Pittsburgh publisher and philanthropist has bankrolled so many conservative and anti-Clinton pursuits -- as well as the Pepperdine University deanships Starr was to assume -- that he rarely seems more than one degree from any administration-bashing enterprise. To Clinton loyalists, Scaife is ground-zero for the "vast right-wing conspiracy" they speak of.
"He's sort of a mythical figure," says conservative editor William Kristol.
Over the past several decades, Scaife has given an estimated $200 million to conservative causes, including, in recent years, the American Spectator, the conservative magazine that published allegations about President Clinton's sex life that led to the Paula Corbin Jones lawsuit, and groups that have pushed the Vincent W. Foster murder conspiracy theory.
In the spotlight these days is the $2.4 million that Scaife foundations gave to the American Spectator between 1993 and 1997, $1.8 million of which was earmarked for investigative articles on the Clintons' alleged misdeeds, which the magazine called the "Arkansas Project."
Attorney General Janet Reno recently called for an investigation into a charge that Scaife money was used to influence the testimony of David Hale, Starr's chief witness against Clinton in the Whitewater probe.
Terry Eastland, publisher of the magazine, says an internal audit he is conducting has turned up "no evidence so far" that money went to Hale.
'Not conspiracy central'
Scaife, who shuns the media, declined to be interviewed for this article. But a spokesman, Richard M. Larry, president of the Sarah Scaife Foundation, dismisses the notion that Scaife is behind some grand plot against Clinton. "We're not conspiracy central," he says.
While it is true that "Scaife grants seem to be everywhere" -- as Michael Joyce, president of the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, says -- those who have watched him through the years also dispute the portrayal of Scaife as the "Goldfinger of the right-wing conspiracy."
"There's not a lot of mystery here," says Erik Devereux, a senior lecturer on politics at Carnegie Mellon University. "People like Richard Mellon Scaife don't like the Democratic Party, don't like Bill Clinton, and have the money to put their views forward."
Scaife, who controls three foundations, has spent much of his estimated $1 billion fortune making sure his beliefs in limited government, property rights, strong national defense and the rule of law are put forward -- through dozens of conservative organizations such as the Landmark Legal Foundation, the National Taxpayers Union, the American Enterprise Institute and Cato Institute.
Hailed as one of the key financiers of the New Right, the conservative movement that emerged in the late 1970s, he provided the seed money to many now-influential conservative think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation, and supported the work of such prominent conservative thinkers as Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and values maven William J. Bennett.
"Scaife has been one of the half-dozen major funders of the conservative movement over many years," says Thomas Ferguson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston who studies money in politics.
After the Republican "revolution" of 1994, House Speaker Newt Gingrich hailed his fellow white-haired conservative as a vital player in the GOP sweep in Congress and among those who "created modern conservatism."
But his more recent activities -- namely, his concentration on anti-Clinton efforts -- strike some as a change from the less-personal way his foundations have operated for the past 30 years.
As Joyce of the Bradley Foundation says, "It's a very odd departure."
Larry says the recipients of Scaife's largess may be more aggressive these days -- and devoted to intense scrutiny of the president -- because Clinton greatly offends them.
"We've never seen anything like this," says the Scaife foundation president. "This administration often has a scandal du jour. There's the politicization of the Justice Department, the appointment of independent counsels."
Scaife, who once said the death of deputy White House counsel Foster was "the Rosetta Stone to the whole Clinton administration," has been the chief marketer of the theory that the Arkansan was a victim of foul play rather than suicide.
Since 1994, he has pushed this theory, chiefly on the front pages of his 84,000 circulation newspaper in western Pennsylvania, the Tribune-Review, with articles by Christopher Ruddy, a Foster-obsessed former New York Post reporter.