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Indictment of first lady called unlikely

With the main Whitewater grand jury heading into its final days, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Sunday dismissed speculation that Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, might seek the indictment of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"I don't think the first lady's going to be indicted, no matter how much her fingerprints are on almost everything from Whitewater up to now in the eyes of many who are looking at this objectively," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, the committee chairman. He was discussing Mrs. Clinton's nearly five hours of questioning on Saturday by Starr at the White House.

The session immediately stirred speculation in Washington that Starr, facing a May 7 deadline for the close of his Whitewater grand jury in Little Rock, Ark., was intent on establishing contradictions in Mrs. Clinton's testimony that could lead to an indictment. She has testified under oath six times in Starr's 30-month inquiry into Whitewater, the complex knot of real estate and political accusations that date to the Clintons' years in Arkansas.

Questioned on the NBC News program Meet the Press, Hatch backed away from speculation about indictment even as he criticized the Clintons, concluding it would be a "worrisome thing" for the nation to see its first lady face criminal charges.

"I personally don't think she'll be indicted, but I do think that the final report is going to be highly critical," Hatch said of the summary of findings that Starr is eventually expected to produce on his Whitewater grand jury proceedings in Little Rock. A second Whitewater grand jury sits in Washington, but Starr has been focusing on the Little Rock panel lately, presumably aiming for some conclusive action as its deadline nears.

The deadline has returned Whitewater to the public fore. Since January, the long-running inquiry has been eclipsed by Starr's separate investigation into the president's private life and accusations that he had a sexual affair with a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, and sought to cover it up in testimony.

In his inquiries, Starr has offered no hint of what he might decide is most warranted among his options as independent counsel. These include the possibility of criminal accusations and even a formal report to Congress on the question of impeaching Clinton.

Starr is facing time-consuming court challenges from the White House. That led Bill Kristol, a conservative commentator, to speculate Sunday on the ABC News program This Week that, in advance of formal charges, Starr, who has stirred little public support, might issue "speaking indictments," detailed summaries of his suspicions and evidence.

White House officials declined to comment on the first lady's latest testimony, which was videotaped so that it might be played before the Little Rock grand jury. Her appearance stirred conjecture, reflected in the Sunday morning political television programs, that Mrs. Clinton was being singled out as the Little Rock inquiry winds down, possibly in a conspiracy to obstruct justice.

"I don't think they've begun to find enough that they could indict her on, and the question of a conspiracy seems like nonsense to me," Jane Sherburne, a former White House assistant counsel, said on This Week. Ms. Sherburne, reflecting the Clintons' contention that Starr was politically motivated, added, "It is time to wrap this up, and it's time to clear these people who've been the subject of an investigation for over four years."

Little has been disclosed of the substance of the final path of investigation Starr is pursuing. But one administration official emphasized that Mrs. Clinton's testimony Saturday was no surprise and that Starr's office had notified the administration that the questioning would be lengthy.

The independent counsel has been looking into whether the Clintons have told the truth in explaining their involvement in Whitewater dealings. These dealings took place more than a decade ago when Clinton was Arkansas governor and Mrs. Clinton did legal work for Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, a failed business owned by James and Susan McDougal, who were business partners of the Clintons in the Whitewater land development plan.

In the final weeks of the Little Rock grand jury, Starr's office has been reported to be inquiring in particular into the Castle Grande real estate project, a Madison Guaranty deal eventually described as a "sham" by federal insurance investigators and one in which Mrs. Clinton said she had played only a minor role as a lawyer. Officials of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. are reported to have told the Little Rock grand jury that a document Mrs. Clinton drafted in 1986 was used "to deceive regulators" about Castle Grande financing.

In recent days, the Little Rock inquiry reportedly has been focusing on information provided by Jim Guy Tucker, Clinton's successor as governor, whom Starr convicted of fraud in 1996 and who has since become a cooperative witness. Tucker had been involved in the Castle Grande deal.