NEW YORK POST 02-19-97
KENNETH STARR'S plan to leave as Whitewater independent counsel could turn into the White House's worst nightmare.
That's because the guy likely to take over -- deputy independent counsel Hickman Ewing -- is a tough-as-nails criminal prosecutor who won't be nearly as politically sensitive as Starr has been.
If Ewing had been in charge of the Whitewater probe from the start, Bill Clinton probably wouldn't be in the White House right now, because an array of charges -- including possible allegations of cocaine use and racketeering -- would have surfaced long before last November's election.
With his home in Memphis, Tenn., and his office in Little Rock, Ark., Ewing just isn't fazed by the Washington politics that have been keeping Starr at bay. And since few people, even in the media, know his name or influence, Ewing has been able to avoid becoming the lightning rod for criticism.
And worse for the White House is that Ewing flat-out thinks Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton are corrupt. I know, because I've discussed the matter with him. And the minute he can prove it, Ewing will be bold enough to bring the First Couple to trial.
Remember that it was Ewing who was in charge of last year's trial of Jim and Susan McDougal and former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. At that trial, Bill Clinton was forced to testify on videotape.
"This is very bad for the Democrats," says a source of mine in Arkansas who is very close to Ewing. "Their nightmare is Hick Ewing. If he is the lead prosecutor, this is their WORST nightmare."
Starr has been handling the Whitewater investigation for 2 1/2 years, all the time expanding its scope as more evidence of wrongdoing surfaced.
Starr's decision to join Pepperdine University in California next August was met with subdued elation by the White House, where anonymous sources were quoted widely as wondering aloud how the probe could continue without his involvement.
Starr's answer: Federal prosecutors leave their jobs all the time without their cases being aborted.
If you could have gotten him to expound a bit more on the subject, Starr probably would have admitted that it was Ewing, and not he, who was handling all the prosecutions -- and that matters concerning the president are leaving the investigation stage and being readied for a grand jury.
The only legal document Starr has written in the Whitewater case came in the unsuccessful effort to have Gov. Tucker's next trial moved up from its current date of mid-September. Most of the grunt work has been coming out of Ewing's Little Rock office.
Ewing hasn't been available for comment since Starr's announcement. But it is clear that if Ewing wants the job, as far as Starr is concerned, it is his.
He and Starr met yesterday for hours in Ewing's Little Rock office. The meeting started at 9 a.m. and didn't even break for lunch. The two men ordered in.
Starr and Ewing also spent a lot of time together last week in Little Rock. One of my sources says the two men met late into the night last Tuesday. At the time, none of us knew what was going on. Now it is clear that Starr was planning his succession strategy.
Starr also will be leaving behind a staff of extremely competent associates to help Ewing out. Steve Parker is a homicide investigator who previously worked with Ewing in Memphis, and was recently shifted temporarily from the probe of White House aide Vince Foster's death to the continuing investigation of Webster Hubbell.
Then there are newcomers Thomas Dawson, who was recently hired as an associate independent counsel because of his experience prosecuting organized crime, and Solomon Wisenberg, whose expertise is the prosecution of financial crimes. Both are Southerners who have worked with Ewing -- not Starr -- in the past.
Ewing's influence has been expanding. Jackie Bennett, an associate independent counsel who worked with Ewing in Arkansas, is scheduled to move to Washington soon to become the second-in-charge at that office. Bennett will probably play second fiddle to Ewing if Ewing gets the top job.
"Ewing doesn't care if you are a Republican, Democrat or Independent. If you break the law, he believes you ought to be prosecuted. He's a very fair, but very tough prosecutor," says his friend.
Don't believe it? Friends of Ewing are quick to tell the story about how Ewing had been influenced by the failings of his father, Hickman Ewing Sr., who was one of the winingest high-school football coaches in the South but also a corrupt small-time politician.
Ewing Sr. went to jail, and that -- friends say -- made the son the toughest anti-corruption prosecutor they know.
"He is a most zealous prosecutor," Edgar Gillock, a former state senator who Ewing pursued for 10 years and sent to prison for two, told the Wall Street Journal in a feature on Ewing that ran last summer.
"If I were the president of the United States, or anyone else that Mr. Ewing is pursuing, I'd say that you're in great danger," said Gillock.
A panel of three federal judges appointed Starr and the judges will have the final say on his successor. This may not be a bad time for the White House and its attack dog James Carville to pull the newspaper clips on Hickman Ewing Jr. -- and see what they might be up against.
Posted here February 19, 1997
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