Whitewater counsel. Starr puts Kirklands on the map

Whitewater independent counsel Ken Starr is fond of using themes when he tells stories. In the Whitewater investigation, a matter that can be as perplexing as it is complicated, he says the story is all about the truth.

“Ultimately, Whitewater is about truth-telling in connection with loans made in the 1980s as well as with more recent events in the White House,” he says.

But as a partner at US-firm Kirkland & Ellis, the story is all about Starr and how he can bring the firm to the next level as a player in an increasingly international business and legal community.

At 50, Starr has already had an enviable legal career. Born in San Antonio, Texas, he received business and law degrees from three good but not traditionally white-shoe US universities – George Washington University, Brown University and Duke University. But he made the right moves in the Washington office of a Los Angeles-based law firm and was appointed as a judge of the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the influential DC Circuit in 1983.

From there, he was named Solicitor General in 1989 under President Bush, a position he held until 1993. His decision to join the Washington office of Kirkland & Ellis soon after was both “deliberate and well-thought-out.” “I wanted to join a firm where clients say: 'This is a matter that really counts, let's bring in the best,'” says Starr.

With his Whitewater appointment in August 1994, he was back in the spotlight, and balancing his partnership with government service. For his work as independent counsel Starr is paid pro rata for his time as if he were a $115,000-a-year government lawyer.

Starr's part in the Whitewater saga began in 1994 when President Clinton called for the appointment of independent counsel. He was appointed in August by a special division of the DC Court of Appeals and took over the investigation from Robert Fisk.

While Starr will not tender a prediction about how much longer the investigation will last, he is adept at summarising what has happened so far. He separates it into two phases. The first he calls the “Little Rock” phase. It involves the matters leading up to the recent conviction of James and Susan McDougal for their roles in granting fraudulent loans on behalf of their Madison Savings & Loan financial institution to what became the failed Whitewater land deals.

Media reports indicate that should either McDougal “open up” to prosecutors, more indictments could follow, though Starr is quiet on the matter. Whether President Clinton or his wife would be involved remains a matter for speculation, particularly because of Hilary Clinton's representation of the failed financial institution while a partner at the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas. At the very least, the Clintons may be witnesses to criminal wrongdoing.

Phase two is the DC portion of the investigation. Among other issues, it involves criminal referrals on the Whitewater loans from the Resolution Trust Corporation to the Department of the Treasury. Confusing the matters are simultaneous investigations into the possible removal of papers following White House counsel Vince Foster's death in 1993 and the events surrounding the dismissal of the White House travel staff soon after Bill Clinton entered office.

Starr's challenge at Kirkland & Ellis is more clear. The firm has already gained a reputation for representing major corporations such as General Motors and Siemens in their legal troubles. But with Starr on board, the firm hopes to attract more international business. “In essence, we want to take on the most challenging legal issues in the US and beyond,” he says.

But the firm wishes to remain a “staunchly American firm”. With the exception of its London office's co-ordinating role, the firm has not expanded beyond the major US financial centres. “We are adept at US law, at understanding international law and at fashioning the right counsel team for multinational clients. The future of this firm is in expanding its international practice,” says Starr.

International involvement includes a high-profile at recent IBA Berlin, Paris and Melbourne conferences. In Berlin, Starr participated in a day-long mock trial on international forum shopping issues.

But wherever the firm is, Starr is at the fore. Regardless of the length or the outcome of Whitewater, he has become a newsmaker whose notoriety will help Kirkland gain international recognition.