LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Deputy Whitewater independent counsel W. Hickman Ewing Jr. has quietly met several times during the course of his investigation with a private eye employed by conservative philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife, according to two federal law enforcement sources. One Whitewater investigator expressed concerns about the meetings, because the ties between Scaife and independent counsel Kenneth Starr have come under close scrutiny lately and because not all of Ewing's meetings with Scaife's private detective were recorded in the official files of the independent counsel. The law enforcement official called the meetings between Ewing, who is Starr's chief deputy in Little Rock, and the private investigator, Rex Armistead, "either the worst case of judgment or something worse."
Armistead, a former Mississippi law enforcement official, was paid $250,000 by the Arkansas Project, a covert, $2.4 million operation funded by Scaife, to investigate and discredit President Clinton, according to sources and documents.
Disclosure of the meetings between Ewing and Armistead comes at a critical moment for Starr's investigation. Last month, Salon reported that Starr's key Whitewater witness, David Hale, had allegedly received payments from associates of Scaife. The Justice Department referred the matter to Starr's office for investigation, but also pointed out that Starr might face a conflict of interest in conducting such an investigation because he too was the beneficiary of Scaife's largesse. Last year, Starr accepted an academic post at Pepperdine University that was funded by the Pittsburgh billionaire. On Thursday, Starr announced that he was surrendering the Pepperdine post, which had been kept open for him for 14 months, in a move that was seen as an effort to defuse the conflict of interest issue.
But the new information regarding Ewing's contacts with Armistead is certain to add to the controversy. Sources said it would provide new ammunition for Justice Department officials who want Starr to refer any investigation of the Hale-Scaife matter back to the department or to a new investigative entity that would be independent of both the Justice Department and Starr.
Debbie Gershman, a spokeswoman for the independent counsel, declined to comment on the alleged meetings between Ewing and Armistead. According to Armistead's secretary, he is out of the country and unavailable for comment. Ewing did not return messages left at his Little Rock office.
A source close to Ewing suggested that Starr's deputy might not have disclosed all his contacts with Armistead because they were of a social nature. He pointed out that Ewing and Armistead's relationship dates back to the 1970s, when Ewing was a federal prosecutor in Memphis and Armistead headed a nonprofit crime-fighting organization there. The source also pointed out that, unlike FBI agents, federal prosecutors are not required to file reports about all contacts with investigative sources.
But a federal Whitewater investigator strongly disagreed with this assessment. Ewing's meetings with Armistead raise troubling questions, he asserted, since Starr's ties to Scaife, a zealous Clinton critic who has poured millions of dollars into undermining his presidency, have become the source of growing controversy.
"Because Armistead was working for Scaife, or those associated with Scaife, there should have been an official record of every conversation," said the investigator. "If Ewing and Armistead met for three hours for social purposes, and spent 10 minutes discussing Whitewater, the office of the independent counsel should have known that. This was either the worst case of judgment or something worse. But whatever it was, it needs to be looked at."
Although Ewing reportedly often met with Armistead alone, the two sometimes were joined by Steven D. Irons, an FBI agent temporarily detailed to the Whitewater investigation. Irons could not be reached for comment. Federal investigators said Irons scrupulously complied with reporting requirements in regard to the Armistead meetings. They refused to provide further details, because the Whitewater investigation is still ongoing.
Sources said that some Whitewater investigators expressed reservations about Armistead, wondering aloud about the sources of his financing and the quality of the information he was providing Starr's office. One source called Armistead's information "hardly credible" and said it "led to nowheresville." The source said that if Ewing had not been involved with the private investigator, "Armistead wouldn't have been allowed in the front door, or the back door for that matter."
Ewing, a hard-nosed prosecutor and conservative born-again Christian, has been called a driving force behind the Clinton probe. "The Starr investigation has been portrayed as a personal contest between (Starr) and the president, but Hickman Ewing may be the one who really takes it personally," wrote Jeffrey Toobin in a recent New Yorker profile of Ewing.
It could not be determined what Ewing discussed with Armistead. It was also unclear whether Ewing knew that Armistead was working for the Scaife-funded Arkansas Project when the two men met.
Armistead's investigative efforts on behalf of the Arkansas Project focused on allegations that Clinton, while governor of Arkansas, protected a cocaine smuggling ring based at a remote airport in Mena, Ark. The charges have been refuted by three government investigations, including one by the Republican-controlled House Banking Committee. Salon reported on Friday that Armistead also probed the private life of CNN correspondent John Camp, whose reports cast doubts on the Mena allegations.
Armistead also examined allegations that Clinton personally used cocaine while governor. He provided information from this investigation to R. Emmett Tyrrell, editor of the American Spectator, who published an article just prior to the 1996 presidential election alleging that Clinton had once used cocaine. The article contained no credible evidence to substantiate the charge.
Law enforcement records show that Armistead met with other federal investigators to encourage them to examine his Mena information, including agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency. Armistead provided the DEA with conflicting information about his employers, saying on one occasion he had been retained by a law firm representing the Republican National Committee and on a second occasion that he was working with the House Banking Committee. A spokesman for the Republican National Committee has said the committee knows nothing about Armistead. A spokesman for the House Banking Committee said Armistead was one of "hundreds of people" that the committee interviewed during the course of its Mena probe, but that Armistead had no formal relationship with the committee.
In a recent interview with Salon, Armistead suggested that he had been retained by William Spell, a Clinton, Miss., attorney. But financial records for the Arkansas Project show that Armistead was paid by Stephen Boynton, a conservative lawyer and longtime associate of Scaife who oversaw the Arkansas Project. There is no sign in the financial records of any involvement by Spell.
In an interview, Spell said that Armistead, a friend of three decades, was not telling the truth when he said that Spell's law firm had sponsored the anti-Clinton investigation. "It really doesn't bother me one way or another, " said Spell. "Sometimes Rex doesn't understand what he is talking about."