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Whitewater Probe Draws Fire, Gets New Attorneys

CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, in the face of widening criticism of his inquiry’s slow pace and his reputed difficulty in making decisions, shored up his staff Thursday with the appointment of four prosecutors.

John D. Bates, an experienced prosecutor who left the staff in February, will rejoin it as deputy independent counsel.

The three other prosecutors joining the staff are Michael W. Emmick, a 15-year veteran of the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles; Bruce L. Udolf, assistant U.S. attorney in Miami since 1987, and Mary Anne Wirth, district counsel for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in New York and former assistant district attorney in Manhattan.

Criticism of the independent counsel has spread beyond defenders of President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, some of whom have long accused Starr, a conservative Republican, of exceeding his mandate and dragging out the investigation for political purposes.

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Now even some of Starr’s own friends and colleagues say his lack of prosecutorial experience and his operating mode--working part time as independent counsel while continuing to handle cases for his Washington law firm, making occasional speeches and teaching one night a week at New York University Law School--have become major drags on the investigation.

Starr took over as independent counsel nearly three years ago from Robert B. Fiske Jr., a career prosecutor. An attorney who has worked on the staff under both Fiske and Starr drew this contrast:

“Fiske is a seasoned prosecutor who knows how the system works, and he worked full time as independent counsel and was comfortable making decisions about what should be investigated and prosecuted and what should not.

“Ken didn’t bring that to the investigation. He’s a fine person and a great lawyer, but he’s in the wrong environment. He’s not comfortable with the decisions he has to make.”

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Starr has found insufficient evidence to prosecute the president or the first lady for any role in the 1980s Arkansas real estate transactions that resulted in felony convictions for their business partners, James B. and Susan McDougal, sources close to the independent counsel said. Instead, these sources said, Starr has been focusing on possible charges of perjury or obstruction of justice.

Starr, though a highly respected attorney and former solicitor general, has never served as a prosecutor. His decisions at each stage of the probe have been slowed by his practice of reviewing even fairly routine matters with a panel of aides, said a colleague who described Starr’s time as independent counsel as “on-the-job training.”

In addition, Starr’s outside commitments with his law firm, teaching and speaking engagements have sometimes made it difficult to get decisions from him.

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno appointed Fiske to head the Whitewater probe as special counsel on Jan. 20, 1994. Six months later, after a newly reenacted independent-counsel law became effective, she asked a three-judge federal panel to reappoint Fiske. But the panel appointed Starr on Aug. 5, explaining that naming someone originally appointed by the administration would be inconsistent with the law’s objective of independent investigations.

Despite Starr’s limitations as a prosecutor, associates inside and outside the independent counsel’s office say he seems eager to complete the Whitewater probe as expeditiously as he can. Among those interviewed for this article were present and former aides who spoke only on the condition that their names not be used. All praised Starr for his thoroughness and integrity.


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