WASHINGTON — When Robert W. Ray takes over independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of President Clinton next week, he will bring a history degree from Princeton, a stint in Manhattan's best legal proving grounds and the burden of having been on the controversial team that unsuccessfully prosecuted former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.
Ray, who sources say will officially be appointed to succeed Starr by a three-judge panel early this week, will be charged with completing the remnants of an investigation that has seemed far from center stage since Clinton's acquittal in Senate impeachment proceedings in February. Among the questions Ray will face are whether Democratic fund-raiser Nathan Landow tampered with potential witness Kathleen Willey in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment lawsuit and whether to bring indictments in the White House Travel Office scandal--a determination that could touch upon the role of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The White House was quick to complain about Ray's selection. "It's somewhat of a dubious proposition that someone involved both in the Espy investigation and the Starr operation [is] getting a promotion," said Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart. Espy, who had been charged with accepting gifts from businesses he was regulating, was acquitted of all charges in 1998.
Ray, 39, has been a senior litigation counsel in Starr's office since April. During that time, he was lead prosecutor in a tax evasion case against Webster L. Hubbell. He negotiated a misdemeanor tax violation guilty plea, which is now pending before the Supreme Court. Ray's evenhanded dispatch of this case played a part in the decision to select him, according to a source close to the process.
"Some of my negotiations with Bob Ray would not be fit to print in a family newspaper," said Hubbell's attorney Peter J. Romatowski. "But I found him basically to be a decent, honorable and very aggressive adversary."
Ray's four years working with independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz's investigation of Espy provoked more divided reactions. Ray joined Smaltz's office in 1995 and rose to be second in command. Smaltz had no experience as a prosecutor, and those who did, such as Ray, found themselves in an office that provoked high passions among their former colleagues in the white-collar bar.
One of the questions about Ray has been the extent of his role in some of Smaltz's controversial judgment calls, which included a decision to prosecute Espy's brother (who was ultimately acquitted) and moving a case against Richard Douglas, an African American lobbyist, to San Francisco to avoid a black jury in Washington, D.C.
"I do think he's basically a decent, fair-minded person, but you really have to question that in light of his affiliation with Smaltz," said Elliot Peters, an attorney for Douglas who was also a colleague of Ray's in the U.S. attorney's office in New York's Southern District.
"I know him extremely well," said Reid H. Weingarten, Espy's attorney. "I came to believe that Bob Ray was an honorable lawyer and a good guy. I was impressed with his technical legal skills. He's a very good trial lawyer. Having said that, I'm quick to add we scored a decisive victory and believe the case was dramatically overcharged."
Ray was not lead counsel in the Espy case. But his successful prosecutions of two Tyson Foods executives for their dealings with Espy drew harsh criticism from one defense lawyer.
"Bob Ray is a person of astoundingly bad judgment," said Barry W. Levine, who represented Tyson executive Jack L. Williams. "I think he has never found a peccadillo that he didn't think was worthy of the most vigorous prosecution."
Levine noted that Ray had failed to gain convictions on serious charges against Williams, who was instead found guilty only on one count of making false statements to government officials. Ray successfully prosecuted the other Tyson official, lobbyist Archibald R. Schaffer, for making an illegal gift to Espy.
Smaltz declined to comment on Ray's tenure in his office. But Barry Coburn, another Smaltz alumnus, said: "There were moments of extreme pressure, tension and discomfort in the Espy cases, and Bob handled himself with an unusual degree of poise. . . . I don't think the White House knows Bob Ray very well, and I think if they knew him better they would probably have a great deal of confidence in his judgment and the wisdom of his selection."
Ray graduated magna cum laude from Princeton in 1982 and received his law degree from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., in 1985. He joined the prestigious U.S. attorney's office in the Southern District of New York in 1989, working public corruption, organized crime and narcotics trafficking cases.