THE new independent counsel investigating Whitewater and related matters, New York attorney Robert Fiske, begins work today that he promises will be ``flat out'' until he finishes.
His report is likely to take several months to complete, based on his comments so far.
In his press conference last Thursday, Mr. Fiske, a Republican, averred that the process would take ``more than a month.'' And past experience with independent counsels would indicate that three months would be a remarkably quick investigation.
But he also noted that he could work within the 10-year statute of limitations on bank fraud that, in this case, could reach back to Aug. 9, 1984. This remark clearly implied that he would be ready to bring any potential charges by early August of this year.
For President Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Fiske's report offers the possibility of becoming something very near to the last word on their involvement in Whitewater.
To date, the public has shown no great interest in the Whitewater Development Corporation and the Clintons' connection to it. In fact, since the matter resurfaced in the news in recent weeks, just before Mr. Clinton went to Europe, the president's public approval has risen slightly in the polls.
``I just don't think the country's in the mood to negate President Clinton's accomplishments over the past year over something that happened a long time ago that a lot of them don't understand,'' says Peter Feld, an analyst with Peter Hart Research, which conducted a bipartisan survey that was released last week.
In that poll, 21 percent said that Whitewater made them view Clinton less favorably while 76 percent said it did not.
In the extreme case, where Fiske finds evidence of criminal wrongdoing on the part of Clinton himself, Fiske could probably not bring charges. Rather, he could refer the evidence to the House Judiciary Committee for it to make a recommendation to the House on impeachment.
No sitting president has ever been indicted, and most constitutional scholars say that a president must be impeached and removed from office before indictment, according to Warren Grimes, a law professor at Southwestern University and a former staff attorney for the House Judiciary Committee.
Mrs. Clinton, however, was more deeply involved with the Whitewater business than her husband. If evidence of federal crime emerged against Mrs. Clinton, Fiske would be faced with the difficult political question of whether to pursue an indictment.
Fiske has been granted all the powers of a federal prosecutor by Attorney General Janet Reno, including the power to expand his investigation as he sees fit. Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern says Fiske has an additional advantage over a United States attorney: He does not have to clear any of his decisions with superiors.
The Justice Department's own investigation is now shut down. Fiske spent Thursday interviewing members of the department's team about what they knew and what evidence they had collected, but he had already decided not to take any of them onto his own staff. His concern, he said, was to prevent any appearance of less-than-complete independence.
Fiske will now assemble a staff and set up shop in Little Rock, Ark., where the investigation will be centered. At the heart of the probe is Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, a failed Arkansas thrift whose depositors were reimbursed as much as $60 million by US taxpayers.
The owner of Madison, James McDougal, was the Clintons' partner in Whitewater Development Corporation, a 200-acre vacation-home venture that eventually went bankrupt. Mr. McDougal also helped pay off Clinton campaign debts. Mrs. Clinton served as attorney to Madison Guaranty.
Further, after White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster committed suicide last summer, the White House counsel removed files pertaining to Whitewater from his office, a move the White House did not acknowledge until this winter. After agreeing to share the files with Justice Department investigators, Clinton's lawyer arranged to have Justice subpoena them, so that their privacy is protected from the public.
The taxpayer bailout of Madison's depositors heightens the interest of the public in whether Madison funds were used improperly to benefit Whitewater or the Clinton campaign.
Other questions include whether the Clintons received some kind of special treatment from the Whitewater company. Their contribution was far lower than that of Mr. and Mrs. McDougal, yet they were treated as equal partners. Also, did Clinton prevail on state regulators, his appointees, to ease up on Madison Guaranty?
Fiske and his team will not be the only ones asking these questions. Republican members of the House Banking Committee plan to continue their investigation, according to a Republican staff member for the committee.
The just-completed investigation of the Iran-contra affair by Lawrence Walsh took seven years and cost more than $40 million. One reason that scenario is unlikely in Fiske's case is that the administration has pledged its cooperation. Mr. Walsh was fought at every turn by the Reagan and Bush administrations.