THE first major trial brought by Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr is under way in Little Rock.
President and Hillary Rodham Clinton's former partners in the Whitewater Development Company Inc., James McDougal and his ex-wife, Susan, are charged with criminal fraud and conspiracy together with Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. They allegedly misused $3 million in loans from the McDougals' Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan and an investment company run by former municipal Judge David Hale. Hale, who has pleaded guilty to two felonies, is the government's star witness. The Clintons have not been charged.
Mr. Hale claims then-Governor Clinton pressured him to make an improper $300,000 loan to Mrs. McDougal, a charge the McDougals and Clinton vehemently deny. The McDougals wanted the president to testify in person on their behalf, but the judge ruled last week that he could give videotaped testimony.
MR. Starr's investigation, that of the suspended Senate Whitewater Committee, which Senate Democrats are doing their best to kill off, and press reports have revealed a web of relationships among Arkansas business figures and politicians, including the Clintons, that fostered cosy back-room deals, preferential treatment, flaunting of federal and state regulations, and conflicts of interest. The number of Clinton friends, supporters, and acquaintances who have pleaded guilty, been indicted, or are under investigation is disconcerting.
And now come disturbing reports that the ''Arkansas political machine,'' as some call it, is doing its best to put a stick in Starr's spokes. First, federal district judge Henry Woods, who has close ties to the Clintons, ruled that Starr's charges against Governor Tucker and two associates in another case exceeded the independent counsel's mandate. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reinstated the charges, removing Judge Woods from the case.
While it expressed confidence in the judge's abilities, the appellate court took the action ''to preserve the appearance as well as the reality of impartial justice.'' Woods might have done better to recuse himself in the first place.
MORE disturbing are reports giving the appearance that Arkansas officials are trying to intimidate witnesses, including Hale. Last month Pulaski County prosecutor Mark Stodola said he planned to charge Hale with a felony in another matter. Starr's office, in a statement, said ''it would be highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for a state prosecutor to initiate separate criminal charges against an individual cooperating in an important federal investigation, during the course of that person's cooperation.''
Sam Dash, the former Senate Watergate Committee chief counsel who is serving as Starr's ethics adviser, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that political pressure on Mr. Stodola to file charges against Hale ''could have been a strategy to embarrass or discredit an important witness in an important prosecution.'' Hale reportedly fears for his life.
The Clintons and their associates have done themselves no favors by their handling of various Whitewater matters. Obfuscations, delays, and misrepresentations have created the appearance of ineptitude at best and a coverup at worst. The new tactic from prosecutor Stodola only adds to that image problem.