Citing professional and other considerations, William Webster, one of three senior federal judges invited by Kenneth Starr to oversee a probe into alleged payments to a key Whitewater witness, has declined to join the review panel, Salon has learned.
Webster's reservations about joining the panel underscore the political and professional quandaries that complicate the investigation, which will involve an unprecedented probe of the independent counsel's office itself. The investigation is expected to begin in earnest in September, Justice Department sources said.
Late last month, after Attorney General Janet Reno called for an investigation into allegations that David Hale, Starr's key Whitewater witness, had been paid by President Clinton's conservative critics, Starr appointed former Justice Department watchdog Michael E. Shaheen Jr. to conduct the inquiry. To avoid any appearance of impropriety, Starr's office agreed that Shaheen, a respected 22-year veteran of the Justice Department's office of professional responsibility, would report to the three-member panel of senior judges instead of Starr or Reno.
Two members of the panel have been identified as Judge Arlin Adams, himself a former independent prosecutor, and Judge Charles Renfrew, who served as deputy attorney general during the Carter administration. Starr later approached Webster to complete the panel.
Webster, the former head of the FBI and the CIA and by far the best-known of the three, told Salon he had informed Starr he was declining the invitation because he already was serving with Shaheen on two other statutory commissions where Shaheen will be reporting to him. A third, Webster told Salon, "might contaminate the process."
"My concern with respect to the process was we were putting Webster-Shaheen into too many situations that could bubble up or boil over," Webster said in a telephone interview. "If one of these becomes controversial, it might reflect on the objectivity with which (the Hale probe) was carried out."
Webster is chairman of the Commission for the Advancement of Federal Law Enforcement, which was created last year to review federal law enforcement procedure. Shaheen, who retired from the Justice Department last January, serves as the commission's general counsel. Webster is also helping oversee a special Treasury Department commission to review the Internal Revenue Service's criminal investigations. Shaheen is responsible for staffing that commission.
"My antennae told me I have to be very careful to keep whatever other things I'm doing from any allegations of political involvement or the kinds of things that people love to throw around -- and have thrown around -- at the independent counsel," Webster said.
"I'd like to help Ken in any way I can, but something tells me there are some people around these days who might seize upon this, with or without merit, just to make an issue of it, and that would affect the other jobs I'm trying to do. I figure there are enough other retired judges out there. If he wants a third one, he can find one.
"I never said I would (do the job), so it isn't a question of changing my mind," he added. "But the more (Starr) uses Shaheen, the less sense it makes for me to be in the picture. It opens up just or unjust avenues of suggestion that we're all too clubby here."
The allegations of payments to Hale first surfaced on March 17, when Salon reported that Parker Dozhier, a Hot Springs, Ark., fishing resort owner who frequently hosted Hale between 1994 and 1996, when Hale was cooperating with Starr's investigation, was seen giving him money. The Salon story quoted Caryn Mann, Dozhier's former live-in girlfriend, and her 17-year-old son, Joshua Rand, as saying they had firsthand knowledge of the payments. At the time, Dozhier was also being paid by the conservative American Spectator magazine to serve as its "eyes and ears" for an investigative effort that sought to unearth damaging details about Clinton's Arkansas past. The Salon story also quoted two unnamed former American Spectator executives as saying they were aware of a "mechanism" within the investigative project to "take care of David Hale and his family."
Shortly after Salon's report, FBI agents interviewed Mann and Rand and recommended an investigation into their allegations. Several weeks later, Reno stepped in, endorsing the recommendation for a witness tampering probe. Dozhier, who admits he was paid $48,000 by the American Spectator, denies he made payments to Hale. Hale also has denied he received any money.
Hale, a former judge who was convicted of defrauding the Small Business Administration of more than $2 million, is crucial to Starr's Whitewater probe because he alleges President Clinton pressured him to obtain a fraudulent $300,000 loan from the SBA for Susan McDougal, Clinton's partner in the Whitewater land deal, and that Clinton lied under oath about it. Clinton has denied Hale's charge.
According to Justice Department sources, Shaheen has begun assembling his staff of lawyers and FBI agents for the Hale probe. The sources said staffing such an investigation is a lengthy process and that they didn't expect Shaheen's probe to begin for another six to eight weeks.
In promising to honor Shaheen's final recommendations, however, Starr could be setting himself up for a lose-lose situation. If Shaheen concludes there was indeed evidence of witness tampering involving Hale, it would cast a shadow over the convictions of former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and James and Susan McDougal, which Starr obtained on the basis of Hale's testimony. But if Shaheen dismisses the witness tampering allegations, it is no guarantee that Starr's critics will halt their assault on him or the credibility of the Hale probe.
Charles Bakaly, Starr's spokesman at the office of the independent counsel, did not return calls seeking comment about Webster's decision.
The other two judges on the panel also declined to comment on any aspect of their work. Speaking for himself and Judge Adams, Judge Renfrew told Salon, "I and Judge Adams have both agreed that we're not going to say anything about our work or responsibilities or what we plan to do or when we plan to do it until the project has been completed. I wish I could say something to you, but at this time, we just simply feel it best under all the circumstances not to discuss what we're about to do."
Webster said Starr has indicated he may be prepared to proceed with the review panel with only Renfrew and Adams participating.
"I know he wants to do the right thing," Webster said, "but this is not one where I'm the one to help him."