Starr will likely resign in fall, before probe of Clintons ends

Officials discuss scenario while issue of charges, if any, still unresolved

August 20, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The criminal investigation of President Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and their associates is expected to go on for several more months, even after the likely resignation this fall of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, government sources said yesterday.

Starr and Justice Department officials have had several discussions, described as hypothetical, to explore how the 5-year-old inquiry would proceed after Starr's expected departure.

The department has made no decision but appears to be leaning toward an endorsement of one of Starr's deputies to complete the investigation, rather than have the Justice Department take over.

The most significant issue unresolved in the Starr investigation is whether to pursue criminal charges against the president or the first lady, now or after the president leaves office.

'Informal contact'

Starr reportedly has given the department no date for his resignation. A judge on the court that selected Starr and other independent counsels to investigate high federal officials revealed Wednesday that Starr and the presiding judge, David B. Sentelle, have had "informal contact" about the future of the investigation. It is unclear whether Starr gave Sentelle a date for resigning from the prosecutor's post.

Associates of Starr were quoted this week in the New York Times as saying he would give up his post as early as October to return to private legal practice. Starr's office did not respond yesterday to inquiries about that report.

Starr said in a statement Wednesday that his office must continue to deal with pending appeals in prior criminal cases and must complete other inquiries that have not led to charges -- such as White House handling of private FBI files and of White House travel operations.

"We are working diligently to complete our investigative work," Starr said.

He also noted that his office is writing a final report on "all matters" his staff has investigated.

He said he and the Justice Department have been discussing "whether appropriate matters can be referred" to the department.

Officials there are known to be reluctant to have the department directly involved, even after Starr leaves, fearing conflicts of interest that led the Justice Department to hand the Clinton probe to Starr.

Yesterday, Attorney General Janet Reno declined to comment on what would happen to the investigation when Starr departs. Reno said she prefers to face those issues when they arise -- an indication that Starr has not informed her or her aides of his plans.

Law expired

The federal law under which Starr was named an independent prosecutor by a three-judge court expired at the end of June, after Congress refused to renew it. But the law authorized independent prosecutors at work to continue.

Justice Department officials have not completed their study of whether the law's expiration would block the selection of someone else to carry on Starr's work, but they are assuming that the three-judge court probably retains the power to pick a successor to finish the inquiry.

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