In a move that shook the Whitewater investigation, former Bush administration Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr was appointed Friday to take over the probe of President Clinton's Arkansas business dealings from Robert Fiske.
Starr, who is a Republican like Fiske, was chosen by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. The judges noted that Fiske was appointed as special counsel by the Clinton administration and said they wanted to make sure the prosecutor's independence was apparent.The White House said it would cooperate with Starr, whose title will be independent counsel. Republicans in Congress, often skeptical of Fiske's ability to act without interference, applauded the switch.
Fiske said he would work with Starr to make the transition as smooth as possible. But one of his deputies said the investigation would probably be set back several months.
The judges, acting under the revived independent counsel act, said they intended no criticism of Fiske, who has been investigating Whitewater since Jan. 20 when Attorney General Janet Reno appointed him.
"It is not our intent to impugn the integrity of the attorney general's appointee, but rather to reflect the intent of the act that the actor be protected against perceptions of conflict," the judges wrote.
Fiske said in a statement: "It has been a privilege to have had the opportunity to serve the attorney general as independent counsel. I wish Ken Starr the very best and will do everything I can to help him with a speedy and orderly transition."
Now a private attorney, Starr, 48, was solicitor general during the Bush administration and served before that on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.
In early July, Reno had recommended that the judges stick with Fiske. But several Republican members of Congress had written them questioning Fiske's independence, and conservative commentators had criticized his work.
In Little Rock, Fiske's staff seemed stung by the decision.
"The appointment of Ken Starr probably will set back the timetable for the investigation by several months," said Rusty Hardin, an attorney working with Fiske on the investigation. "I think one has to assume that Starr will want to assemble his own staff."
White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler issued a two-sentence statement: "The president consistently supported and signed into law the Independent Counsel Statute. The administration will cooperate fully with Mr. Starr."
Clinton ignored questions from reporters about the appointment as he boarded a helicopter to spend the night at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md.
Privately, one senior White House official expressed frustration and seemed shellshocked. "It could drag this process out," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole praised Starr's selection as a potential opportunity to broaden congressional hearings that had been restricted at Fiske's request.
"We were taking orders from an unelected bureaucrat appointed by the attorney general," Dole said in a Senate speech. "I just hope that the Congress . . . will now go back and take a look at our responsibility."
The leading Republican investigator of Whitewater in the House, Rep. James A. Leach of Iowa, said, "The court has chosen a man of impeccable credentials and stature."
Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York, the senior Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, seized the opportunity to suggest that Starr investigate whether administration officials committed perjury in their testimony before the panel this week.
"These are startling developments," D'Amato said. "I am convinced that certain individuals testifying before the panel were not being truthful."
Fiske's office has been investigating Whitewater for more than six months, with an office of about a dozen lawyers. Some 20 FBI agents have been assisting the investigation, sources familiar with the probe have said. His spending was estimated to reach $2.6 million by the end of next month.
He had brought one indictment in Little Rock, in a related financial transaction.
Fiske also had ruled that deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster committed suicide, and he had cleared White House and Treasury aides of any criminality in discussing a case involving an Arkansas savings and loan owned by a man who was partner with President and Hillary Clinton in the White-water land development effort.
The judges said they had reviewed Reno's request that they name Fiske and "determined that this would not be consistent with the purposes of the act."