Deciding president's legal fate


Prosecutor: While most Americans may believe Clinton's legal travails are behind him, the man who succeeded Kenneth Starr is actively considering an indictment.

April 13, 2000|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It wasn't that long ago that Robert W. Ray, pushing 40 and winding up his work in the controversial and unsuccessful prosecution of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, was contemplating his next career move.

Before he knew it, before he even had the chance to alert his friends, he was holding in his hands the awesome, many would say unenviable, power to prosecute the president.

While most of the world has moved on, believing the Whitewater-to-Lewinsky scandal anthology was mercifully closed after President Clinton was impeached and then acquitted by Congress, Ray, the career prosecutor tapped last fall to succeed independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, is still deciding the president's legal fate.

Ray doesn't see his job as mopping up for Starr, quietly closing down an office that has spent more than $50 million investigating Clinton.

In recent interviews, he has made it clear that he is actively considering bringing an indictment against the president on the Lewinsky matter once Clinton leaves office in January.

The third Whitewater independent counsel, following Starr and before him, Robert B. Fiske, Ray has recently hired new staff, including an attorney from Illinois Republican Rep. Dan Burton's Government Reform Committee that spent years doggedly investigating Clinton, and increased his budget projection for the next six months.

"The issue to be vindicated is that no person including the president of the United States is above the law," Ray said in a recent television appearance.

Yesterday, with the prospect of a possible presidential indictment by Ray surfacing in recent weeks, Vice President Al Gore was asked whether he, as president, would consider pardoning Clinton to avoid a criminal prosecution.

Clinton "said publicly some time ago that he would neither request nor accept a pardon, so that is the answer to that question," Gore told the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Ray recently announced his completion of the investigation into the White House's improper acquisition of FBI files and is expected to complete his inquiries into the White House travel-office firings and the original Whitewater land deal in the summer. He has said his office will not seek indictments in any of those areas.

But he is still considering bringing charges against Clinton for perjury, obstruction of justice, making false statements and conspiracy with regard to the president's relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"The majority of people would say it's time for closure on this case, that the appropriate way to deal with presidents is impeachment and that process has played itself out," says Katy Harriger, a Wake Forest University political-science professor and specialist on independent counsels. "But it's certainly a matter of dispute. There's also a large section that thinks some kind of punishment is necessary. The law isn't clear. It depends ultimately on Mr. Ray."

Unlike his predecessors who had lengthy, distinguished careers, the man who will make this weighty decision is a relative unknown just turned 40 this month who is described by friends as smart, aggressive, earnest and civic-minded with a combo plate of political leanings.

The eldest son of a former cloistered Carmelite nun and a retired Army colonel, he was a Roman Catholic and longtime Democrat who changed his registration to independent to avoid the appearance of partisanship. As a student at Princeton University he was an ardent admirer of the late President John F. Kennedy, but in two unsuccessful bids for the school board in Brooklyn, N.Y., he aligned himself with social conservatives.

He worked in relative obscurity for six years in Manhattan aggressively prosecuting drug dealers and organized-crime figures as an assistant U.S. attorney recalled by colleagues as "thoroughly average."

He joined independent counsel Donald Smaltz's controversial Espy investigation in 1995 and began a commuting routine he continues to this day: He stays in his boyhood bedroom at his parents' Alexandria, Va., home during the week and hops a train back to his wife and three children in New Jersey every weekend.

Starr hired Ray last April. Ray handled the tax-evasion case against former Justice official Webster L. Hubbell before taking over the office in October.

"Bob was probably the least objectionable to the judges," says former Starr deputy Robert J. Bittman, referring to the three-judge panel that appoints independent counsels. "The others either didn't have enough experience or were involved in some areas of controversy."

But Ray's background as Smaltz's chief deputy gives some of his fellow attorneys pause. After a five-year investigation, Espy was acquitted of all 30 corruption charges relating to his acceptance of gifts, while some tangential figures were convicted on assorted charges.

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