His Reputation Soiled, Starr Finally Departs

At long last, Kenneth Starr has returned to private life, but not without a few final gestures of contempt for the public. He is leaving, but his political inquisition lives on.

To complete his appointed tasks as independent counsel, including a report on his five-year investigation of the President, Mr. Starr has installed an associate who has worked in his office for only the past five months. And that newcomer may suffer from a disabling conflict of interest, as Mr. Starr must have been well aware when he recommended his successor’s appointment. In this clumsy departure, there is a depressingly familiar sense of déjà vu .

Precisely what is left to be done by the Office of Independent Counsel-months after the impeachment fiasco and Mr. Starr’s admission that there is no Whitewater case against the Clintons-seems rather murky. The independent counsel statute (whose termination Mr. Starr’s fumbling tenure insured) does require a written report.

But according to the usual sources, two matters remain open for the newly sworn independent counsel, Robert W. Ray: the firings of the White House Travel Office employees, and the alleged intimidation of Kathleen Willey, a witness in the Paula Jones case.

It is remarkable that the Travel Office case is still open, more than six years after the events in question took place. The dismissal of those seven White House employees was investigated by the Justice Department and at least one Congressional committee before Mr. Starr took over. After an exhaustive inquiry, his prosecutors reportedly concluded long ago that no crimes had been committed and no indictments would be sought for what was, in essence, an ugly bureaucratic embarrassment.

There is, however, one possible if not particularly legitimate reason for keeping this moldy case alive: the role allegedly played in the Travel Office firings by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Conflicting testimony as to whether she gave the order to dismiss the employees has been in the public record for years; the differences are no closer to being resolved now that memories are dimmer. Will some present or former member of the White House staff suddenly be indicted to induce an accusation against her?

Even if there were real reasons to continue pursuing the Travel Office case, Mr. Ray is a poor choice to handle it. His first important job as a prosecutor was given to him by Rudolph Giuliani in January 1989, just weeks before the then-U.S. Attorney resigned to run his first race for Mayor. Was a prosecutor who owes that sort of debt to Mrs. Clinton’s potential political rival really the only lawyer qualified to take over from Mr. Starr? Perhaps Mr. Ray was selected for that very reason-as Mr. Starr and the judicial panel that oversees his office have unfortunately given the public ample reason to suspect.

As for the Willey case, it too gives off a bad smell. She has claimed that various individuals connected to the White House tried to induce her to change her testimony about the President’s alleged “groping” of her in his office. Yet the only provable crime related to her accusations occurred as a result of a leak from Mr. Starr’s office last May.

That was when Ms. Willey, with the evident connivance of the independent counsel, appeared on CNBC’s Hardball show to talk about the case. Under pointed questioning by host Chris Matthews, she named Cody Shearer, a longtime Clinton friend, as a target of the Starr investigation. Supposedly, Mr. Shearer was the mysterious “jogger” who accosted and threatened her outside her house before she gave a deposition in the Jones case. After Mr. Shearer offered incontrovertible proof that he was in California at the time of that alleged incident, Mr. Matthews correctly apologized.

But in the meantime, the public accusation against Mr. Shearer-repeated on radio by Rush Limbaugh-had already instigated a bizarre and dangerous incident. Apparently inflamed by Ms. Willey’s vague charges, a mentally ill man (who happens to be a brother of Patrick Buchanan) appeared at Mr. Shearer’s Washington home with a gun and threatened him and his housemates.

That near-tragedy was the direct result of Mr. Starr’s partisan abuse of his authority. The independent counsel’s decision to permit Ms. Willey to discuss his investigation on television-a privilege that wasn’t granted to other Starr witnesses like Monica Lewinsky-was one of the most grossly unprofessional acts ever committed by a Federal prosecutor. Moreover, Ms. Willey herself is hardly a credible witness anymore, after her public humiliation on the witness stand during Mr. Starr’s vengeful trial of Julie Hiatt Steele.

No matter how sincere or zealous Mr. Ray may be, he has been stuck with two politically tainted cases and a conflict of his own. And Mr. Starr has departed the independent counsel’s office in the same way he arrived there, under a shadow of partisan politics and legal chicanery.