Kenneth W. Starr, the controversial Whitewater prosecutor whose criminal investigations of President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton are winding down, will leave his post this summer to become dean of Pepperdine University Law School, the Malibu school announced Monday.
Starr’s departure indicates he is unlikely to lodge criminal charges against either the president or first lady, some knowledgeable sources say. His major decision now, according to a source close to the investigation, probably will be when and whether to announce that he will not seek prosecution of the Clintons.
Starr’s unexpected decision to step down as independent counsel is all the more startling because it comes before the completion of one of the most sensitive investigations in the history of the presidency. According to a source close to him, however, Starr “will certainly make the tough decisions himself” before leaving, rather than leave those matters for his successor.
“He’s not about to pull the trigger on some charges and then leave it to someone else to handle it,” said another source familiar with the investigation. “He has a mission, and he’s going to complete the main part of it before he leaves.”
In a telephone interview Monday, Starr insisted his investigation is still making progress, “steady as you go and continuing full steam ahead.”
He added: “I’m looking forward to my new duties, but my present duties are continuing.”
However, sources familiar with his probe say that while he may yet seek additional indictments against some Clinton aides and friends, Starr has pretty well completed most of the investigative phase of his mission, and it is not expected to result in charges against the Clintons.
Over the past two years, Starr’s investigation has expanded beyond the original Whitewater real estate venture involving the Clintons to include the apparent suicide of White House Associate Counsel Vincent Foster, the firing of the White House travel office staff, the disappearance and reappearance of FBI files, and the truthfulness of testimony by the Clintons and several of their friends and White House aides. He is the second independent counsel to investigate the Whitewater controversy, taking over for Robert B. Fiske in 1994.
Starr, who had been mulling over the possibility of joining the Pepperdine faculty for several weeks, was offered the law school post about three weeks ago. Pepperdine made the announcement Monday after news that he had accepted the post began to leak.
“Pepperdine had its own schedule, although if the position had been a year or two years away it would have been better for me, for professional and personal reasons,” Starr said. “But it was an extraordinarily attractive opportunity to go with a university I have come to love. I’ve taught there, been on their board of visitors and been their commencement speaker. I have the highest admiration for it.”
Pepperdine wants him to assume his duties no later than Aug. 1. Starr indicated it could be sooner, depending upon “how things sort out.”
Starr, in addition to becoming Pepperdine’s law school dean, was named the founding dean of the university’s new School of Public Policy. In addition, his arrangement with Pepperdine includes continuing as a partner in the Washington law firm of Kirkland & Ellis, which has a Los Angeles office.
Pepperdine President David Davenport called Starr “one of the most brilliant and broad-based men in the American legal system today” and pointed out that Starr had conducted moot court sessions and made speeches at the university, and--like U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia--had taught at summer school, most recently a course in constitutional law.
Friends say that Starr, 50, a highly respected former federal appellate judge who served as solicitor general in the Bush administration, is relieved that he will be leaving a high-pressure, high-stakes post that has subjected him to widespread criticism.
Clinton himself has accused Starr of being out to “get” him. Some Democrats have charged him with unfairness and excessive zeal in the investigation. And a number of newspaper editorials have called on him to step down for alleged conflicts of interest because he has continued to practice law, representing the tobacco industry and other clients hostile to the Clintons.
Moreover, Clinton political advisor James Carville has waged a media campaign to undermine Starr. Carville, indicating he thought Starr’s probe was foundering and too drawn out, said Monday: “This thing started weird, was weird in the middle and is ending weirdly. The man can do what he wants with his life, but if most people had responsibility to investigate the president and first lady, they’d dispatch it as quickly as they could.”
Starr, in the interview Monday, declined to comment on the latest controversy surrounding his investigation: a report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that quoted two anonymous sources as saying he was reworking his Whitewater investigation after four mock juries--two in Little Rock, Ark., and two in Washington--failed to convict the Clintons in mock trials.
Although Starr said “we’re not commenting on that,” he is known to be furious over what he and sources close to the investigation consider a spurious story.
Sources close to Clinton say they are investigating the report of the mock trials. “If they did occur,” said one source, “it’s outrageous. Mock trials sometimes are held after an indictment or charge has been made, but it would be a violation of grand jury secrecy to hold one before any charges are made.”
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette also quoted an anonymous source as saying Starr staged a mock trial of former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker before bringing fraud and conspiracy charges in the Whitewater investigation. The source was quoted as saying the mock jury acquitted Tucker before a federal jury convicted him in May.
The same three-judge federal panel that named Starr as independent counsel will select his successor. It is possible a successor could still pursue criminal investigations against the Clintons on other matters if the independent counsel’s mandate is extended to other areas, but action on Whitewater and other current issues on Starr’s agenda are considered unlikely.
At least four prosecutors in Starr’s office are believed to be top contenders to succeed him:
* W. Hickman Ewing, deputy independent counsel in Little Rock and former U.S. attorney in Memphis, Tenn.
* Ray Jahn, assistant U.S. attorney in San Antonio who has been on the independent counsel’s Little Rock staff and who was the lead government lawyer in the trial that convicted Tucker of fraud in a case related to the Whitewater investigation.
* Jackie Bennett, a newly named deputy independent counsel and career prosecutor who had served in the Justice Department’s public integrity section.
* John Bates, another career prosecutor who is leaving as the deputy independent counsel in Washington to return to the U.S. attorney’s office as chief of the civil section.
Starr, as the chief Whitewater prosecutor, has helped bring about 12 convictions and guilty pleas in a variety of cases. Hard-working and intense, he has shuttled between Washington and Little Rock for two years. But he often has traveled to other cities, including New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles, on missions unrelated to his role as independent counsel.
As criticism of the length of his investigation has mounted, with questions about the culpability of the Clintons still unresolved, he has become increasingly frustrated and defensive. Several times he has spoken out in public forums, asserting that he is only carrying out a court-ordered mandate.
In a speech in Detroit several months ago, he said that while attacks and accusations are routine in public integrity cases, “as to this investigation, the charge is utterly wrong.”
A deeply religious man who had a strict upbringing as the son of a Baptist minister in South Texas, Starr spent two years at Harding College, a conservative institution in Arkansas. At that time he planned to join the ministry. He transferred to George Washington University and graduated in 1968, about the time Clinton was completing his education a few miles away at Georgetown University.
After earning a master’s degree from Brown University and a law degree at Duke, he became law clerk for Chief Justice Warren Burger and then worked as a clerk for U.S. District Judge David Dyer in Miami.
In 1977, Starr joined Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a prominent Los Angeles law firm. His specialty was the arcane area of federal rules and regulations, and his heavyweight clients included 20th Century Fox.
At Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, he solidified the Republican credentials he had developed as a young volunteer in George Bush’s unsuccessful senatorial campaign in Texas in 1964.
Atty. Gen. William French Smith brought Starr to Washington as his top assistant at the beginning of the Reagan administration in 1981. Two years later, Reagan, viewing Starr as a conservative of great promise, named him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, making him the youngest judge in that court’s history.
Starr made no secret of his ambition to be named to the Supreme Court, and President Bush considered him for a seat in 1990 but named David H. Souter instead. Starr returned to private practice in 1993 with Kirkland & Ellis, a large Chicago firm. He earns about $1 million a year.
Pepperdine President Davenport said the law school has 650 to 700 students, and the new School of Public Policy initially will have 25 to 50 students but may eventually grow to 200.
Over the years, Pepperdine has had an extremely close relationship to Republican Party officials. During the Nixon presidency, Pepperdine’s president, Bill Banowsky, also was Republican national committee representative from California.
However, Provost Steven Lemely, who headed the search committee for the law and public policy school posts, said: “We have a considerable ideological variety among our deans,” with some Democrats among them.
Times staff writers Robert A. Rosenblatt and Jonathan Peterson in Washington and Kenneth Reich in Los Angeles contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
* Enrollment: 7,500
The main campus in Malibu occupies 830 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean and houses Seaver College, an undergraduate liberal arts college, and the law school. Graduate programs in education, psychology and business are located in West Los Angeles, and other programs are offered in centers in Westlake Village, Encino, Long Beach and Irvine.
Founded in 1937 by George Pepperdine, head of Western Auto Supply, at 79th Street and Vermont Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles. Pepperdine forged close ties to the Churches of Christ, a predominantly Southern denomination that believes in a literal acceptance of the Bible.
Today the school, which moved to Malibu in 1972, describes itself as nonsectarian, but its top officials and a majority of its Board of Regents belong to the Churches of Christ and Pepperdine actively recruits faculty, staff and students from Church of Christ congregations.
Republican bigwigs have been among the school’s most generous supporters, such as the late Leonard Firestone, who served as ambassador to Belgium under presidents Nixon and Ford and whose money built the campus gymnasium, Firestone Fieldhouse, and George Graziadio, head of Imperial Bancorp, who gave Pepperdine $15 million last year.
The university notes recent speeches by key conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court--justices Sandra Day O’Connor, William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas--as among the milestones in the law school’s history over the last decade.
Campus regulations prohibit drinking, skateboarding and roller-skating. Thy also ask students and guests to wear clothing that is “tasteful” and “modest.”
Most students pay about $26,000 a year for tuition, room and board.
Source: Kaplan College Catalogue, 1997
Additional research provided by Paul Singleton, Los Angeles Times editorial library