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President Hints at Misconduct by Starr

Whitewater: 'A lot of evidence' supports Susan McDougal's claim that prosecutor wants her to testify falsely, Clinton says. Meanwhile, federal judges ask Reno to get involved.

September 24, 1996|JACK NELSON and PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — President Clinton, in his most critical comments yet about the Whitewater investigation, said Monday that "there is a lot of evidence" to support Susan McDougal's claim that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr is trying to force her to provide damaging testimony against the Clintons--even if it is false.

The comments came as The Times learned that federal judges in Arkansas, acting on another Whitewater front, decided last Friday to ask Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to decide whether Starr should be forced to respond to a legal complaint that he is too political to serve as independent counsel in the case.

That complaint, filed in Little Rock earlier this month by a Democrat acting as a private citizen, argues that Starr's longtime involvement in Republican politics and other activities constitute conflicts of interest that should disbar him and disqualify him from running the Whitewater investigations.

Clinton's comments Monday came close to accusing Starr of misconduct. In a televised interview on PBS' "News Hour with Jim Lehrer," Clinton said "the facts speak for themselves" on whether Starr is shaping his investigation to get the president and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Clinton said McDougal and her lawyer contend prosecutors "did not want her to tell the truth. They wanted her to say something about us whether it was the truth or not."

". . . There's a lot of evidence to support that," Clinton added.

Clinton does not appear to be in any direct political jeopardy from the independent counsel, who has said he will not take any action between now and the election that might influence the outcome of the contest. Still, McDougal's refusal to answer questions that bear on the Clintons' truthfulness raises issues that the president might want to address.

Starr's office said Monday that the prosecutor would have no comment on Clinton's observations.

The action by the U.S. district judges in Little Rock came in response to a petition filed by Francis T. Mandanici, 50, a public defender in New Haven, Conn., and a graduate of Boston's Suffolk Law School.

Mandanici said he researched the issue of the independent counsel and decided to file his petition after reading numerous news accounts and editorials of Starr's Republican activities and his legal representation of interests that oppose Clinton. "I'm arrogant enough to think that one man can make a difference," Mandanici said.

Mandanici's petition cited Supreme Court decisions that require prosecutors to be disinterested and free of compromising influences and loyalties. It argues that Starr's own activities on behalf of Republican and conservative causes, as well as his representation of tobacco industry and other interests opposed to the president, constitute a conflict of interest that should disqualify him.

The petition alleges that Starr also has had a personal and financial conflict of interest by refusing to remove himself from decisions involving the Resolution Trust Corp., an important agency in Whitewater matters, after being notified that the RTC had sued Starr's law firm. The firm eventually paid a settlement of $325,000 in response to the RTC's charge that it had provided negligent representation of a failed savings and loan institution.

The decision to refer the matter to Reno came during a contentious closed-door meeting in which the eight judges present could not agree on whether they themselves should order Starr to respond to the charges.

Acting on a proposal by Judge Bill Wilson, a Democratic appointee and critic of the way the Whitewater investigations have been handled, the judges deadlocked, 4-4, on whether they should compel Starr to respond. Four Democratic appointees voted to direct Starr to reply to the allegations, while another Democratic appointee joined three Republican appointees in voting no.

"There were some strong opinions expressed, but it was civil," one source said of the debate.

Whitewater deputy independent counsel John Bates declined to comment on the matter. Starr was not available.

Earlier this year, in a slap at a higher court, Wilson accused a panel of three Republican judges of the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals of relying on "triple hearsay" in unfairly removing Judge Henry Wood from presiding over a Whitewater trial.

The panel had disqualified Wood, a Democratic appointee, on grounds that he was a friend of President and Mrs. Clinton, who are subjects of Starr's investigation. Wood was among those who voted to order Starr to respond to the petition.

The Monday night televised interview with Clinton covered a range of topics unrelated to Whitewater.

Clinton had praise and sympathy, but no censure, for Dick Morris, the advisor who resigned from White House service last month amid allegations that he gave away government secrets to a prostitute.

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