By Murray Waas
Key Kenneth Starr witness David Hale's strategy for getting out of legal trouble: Blame President Clinton
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The story Starr did not want to hear
BY MURRAY WAAS
The information that Watt says was omitted from the Whitewater investigators' reports raises further questions about the veracity of charges made against the president by David Hale, a former Little Rock municipal court judge who has been the central witness in Starr's Whitewater probe. Watt now calls Hale "a pathological liar."
Watt, also a former Little Rock municipal judge, told Salon that the information he provided investigators that seemed to corroborate Hale's criminal charges against Clinton was recorded in great detail in official FBI reports. In contrast, he said, other information he told them that undermined Hale's allegations was not included in the reports. "I was told that they didn't like the truth the way that I told it," Watt said about Starr's investigators, some of whom he charges had an anti-Clinton bias.
The alleged omissions may also raise questions about the convictions Starr won against Whitewater defendants then-Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and James and Susan McDougal, the Clintons' former partners in the failed Whitewater land deal. Both Hale and Watt were key witnesses for Starr during the 1996 trial of Tucker and the McDougals. The information that Watt alleges was ignored by FBI agents from Starr's office who interviewed him about Whitewater could possibly have been used by the defendants' attorneys to impeach the credibility of Hale, the independent counsel's star witness in the case. The information could also have assisted the attorneys in their questioning of Watt, had they known about it.
Prosecutors are prohibited from withholding information from defendants that casts doubt on their guilt. While saying that he could not comment specifically on Watt's allegations, John Barrett, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches criminal law at St. John's University, observes, "Under the due process clause that grows out of a 1963 Supreme Court decision, there is a constitutional requirement that as a matter of fair play a prosecutor has the duty to turn over to the defendants whatever information the prosecutor has in his possession that is exculpatory -- which means inconsistent with guilt -- or material that could be used to impeach a government witness."
In considering Watt's charges, there are serious questions regarding his own credibility. Watt was named as an unindicted co-conspirator by Whitewater prosecutors during the Tucker-McDougal trial. And testimony and evidence presented during the trial implicated him in a series of ethically questionable actions. Watt also resigned his position as a Little Rock municipal court judge in 1996 while he was in the midst of an ethics investigation of his conduct on the bench.
In addition, three federal investigators close to the Whitewater probe rebutted Watt's story, saying they questioned whether the alleged omissions were important enough to have affected the jury's verdict in the Tucker-McDougal trial. They also questioned whether the information was in fact exculpatory to the defendants, and thus not required to be recorded in the first place. One official said any such omissions were unintentional. "You have to look at the character of the people who put together the case for us," said this official. "Winning the case was not more important to these people than doing the right thing."
But Watt's account that crucial information was omitted from official FBI reports has been independently corroborated by Mark Hampton, a respected Little Rock criminal defense attorney who represented Watt during the Whitewater investigation. Hampton told Salon that he was present for virtually all of the interviews his client had with FBI agents and prosecutors. The attorney confirmed that Watt did indeed provide Whitewater investigators with information exculpatory to President Clinton that was left out of their FBI reports.
Perhaps more importantly, a federal law enforcement official with firsthand knowledge of the FBI interviews with Watt has corroborated a key element of Watt's account. The source confirmed that Watt had told Whitewater investigators of two discussions with then-Gov. Clinton that appeared be exculpatory of Clinton and raised questions about Hale's credibility. The official said, however, that the information might not have been important enough to include in the FBI report.
Salon confirmed other parts of Watt's story in interviews with more than 20 other individuals with knowledge of his claims, including federal Whitewater investigators, private attorneys in contact with Starr's office, other witnesses in Starr's probe and business associates and friends of both Hale and Watt. Further verification of at least parts of Watt's account was provided by correspondence and other contemporaneous documents he provided to Salon, as well as court and federal law enforcement records.
The allegations by Watt place Kenneth Starr in a difficult position. If Starr ends up disputing Watt's charges, he will have the unenviable task of assailing the credibility of a witness whose testimony his own office relied on to obtain his most substantial court victory: the convictions of former Gov. Tucker and the McDougals.
It is also unclear who, if anyone, might ultimately investigate Watt's allegations. Federal law enforcement officials interviewed for this article say that Starr would clearly have a conflict of interest in leading an investigation of any conduct of his own office. When there have been allegations of misconduct by federal prosecutors and FBI agents in the past, they have traditionally been investigated by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). But any probe of the Whitewater investigation by Attorney General Janet Reno's Justice Department might be viewed as an attempt by the Clinton administration to impede Starr's inquiry.
Two federal law enforcement sources said that Watt's allegations should be pursued by Michael E. Shaheen Jr., the former head of the OPR who is already conducting an independent investigation for Starr of charges that conservative political activists made numerous cash payments and provided other gratuities to Hale during the time that Hale was a cooperative witness in the Whitewater probe.
"For public confidence to be maintained in this particular criminal investigation -- one that concerns the conduct of the president of the United States -- it would perhaps be in everyone's interest for Mr. Shaheen to be given jurisdiction to look into this matter," said a senior federal law enforcement official.
For his part, Watt said that he would fully cooperate with any federal investigation, including giving testimony under oath, if it were conducted independently of Starr's office. He also said that he would consider allowing his attorney, Hampton, to waive his attorney-client privilege and confirm Watt's account to federal investigators.
Charles Bakaly III, a spokesman for Starr, declined several requests for comment for this story. Earlier this year, he wrote a letter to the editor of Salon complaining that this reporter was making inquiries to Whitewater probers about sensitive ongoing criminal investigations and federal grand jury matters. Bakaly suggested that the reporter cease his efforts and take further questions to his office.
N E X T+P A G E+| Watt -- caught in a rowboat between two ocean liners