Starr Nears Some Big Decisions

Independent counsel may decide on indicting first lady, and increasing pressure on intern.

Independent counsel Kenneth Starr's Whitewater investigation hasn't exactly been whipping along with the speed of a NASCAR racer. He's been on the case four years now, and there's no checkered flag in sight.

But soon - perhaps within days - Mr. Starr may make public decisions that could indicate the direction and ultimate duration of his probe.

First up: whether or not to indict Hillary Rodham Clinton on charges of obstruction of justice. Though some experts judge such a step unlikely, the fact that Starr's Little Rock grand jury is due to disband May 7 means it might happen this week. The Little Rock panel has focused most on Mrs. Clinton, while its Washington counterpart has more closely scrutinized the president's activities.

Second, Starr must decide how tough he's going to be in his continuing effort to extract testimony from Monica Lewinsky. Last week, a federal judge rejected Ms. Lewinsky's plea that Starr had already promised her immunity from prosecution.

If Starr hauls Lewinsky before his Washington grand jury in a few weeks, it could mean that the end of his race is near.

"I think Ken Starr is probably further along than we know," says Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor.

The political climate in Washington remains such that impeachment proceedings against President Clinton himself look unlikely. Mr. Clinton's job-approval ratings are high, and a large chunk of the public believes that whatever his failings the investigation of his administration is tainted by political motives.

In that context, lawmakers know that a vote to remove Clinton from office would put their own futures in peril.

But independent counsel Starr's relentless pursuit of the Clintons could yet produce damaging evidence that, if nothing else, would follow this administration down into history. The predominance of investigation-related questions at Clinton's press conference last week underscored how much his presidency is now shaped by controversy.

"I think the president still faces some fairly daunting prospects," says Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor.

Little Rock grand jury

Take the independent counsel's Little Rock grand jury, which in recent months has received much less attention than its Washington counterpart.

This panel has been hearing testimony about the actual Whitewater land deal, which prosecutors allege was funded by a series of fraudulent savings-and-loan transactions in the mid-1980s to which the Clintons are linked.

A year ago, Starr won a Little Rock grand jury extension based on a strongly worded statement that his team had extensive evidence of possible obstruction of justice, including destruction of key documents, and perjury.

Having won convictions against such peripheral figures as former Arkansas Gov. Jim Tucker, Starr's Little Rock team has increasingly focused on Mrs. Clinton and her Whitewater-related work at the Rose law firm.

In court, prosecutors have identified Mrs. Clinton as someone who could be indicted. They have also charged that her account to investigators has changed over time.

For instance, prosecutors claim that Mrs. Clinton's billing records - which disappeared mysteriously for a time - belie her contention that she did little legal work involving a tract of land called Castle Grande.

"In a conventional case, the first lady would be at serious risk for indictment for perjury and obstruction, based on the evidence known," says Mr. Turley.

At this writing, Starr's intentions in regard to the first lady remain unknown. If he does intend to indict her, he is most likely to do so before the grand jury expires on Thursday, say legal experts. Such a move after that date would probably have to involve lesser charges - though Starr could ask for yet another Little Rock work extension.

Many analysts and political figures doubt an indictment, however, precisely because Whitewater is not a conventional matter. Absent an open-and-shut case for conviction, not just indictment, Starr may simply be trying to get detailed responses from Mrs. Clinton on the record, for history. He deposed her for the sixth time on April 25. "He may just make her testimony part of a special report to Congress," says Mr. Gillers of NYU.

Washington grand jury

Back in Washington - where the president, not the first lady, is the focus of Starr's attentions - prosecutors may now be maneuvering to line up their final-grand jury witnesses.

The series of indictments brought against Mr. Clinton's close friend and former associate attorney general Webster Hubbell seem directed at pressuring Mr. Hubbell to reveal what he knows about presidential activities. Hubbell denies knowledge of any illegal actions on the part of the president or first lady.

Monica Lewinsky could soon face similar treatment. She might be the last witness before the Washington grand jury - absent an appearance by Mr. Clinton himself.

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