Ken Starr, who led Whitewater investigation into Clinton administration, dies at 76

Kenneth Starr, a former U.S. solicitor general who led the Whitewater investigation into the Clinton administration that began with probes into alleged improper real estate transactions but grew into wider investigations that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, died Sept. 13 in Houston. He was 76.

The death was from complications from a surgery at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston, according to his family.

Mr. Starr used his role as independent counsel to move well beyond the initial investigations into real estate transactions in Arkansas during Clinton’s time as that state’s attorney general in the late 1970s and later as governor. The inquests led to questions over perjury by President Bill Clinton over a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton was impeached in December 1998 by the House, but was acquitted by the Senate.

After the Clinton impeachment, Mr. Starr would become president of Baylor University in Texas. But in May 2016, Baylor removed Mr. Starr as president of the university after an investigation found that the college had mishandled accusations of sexual assault against its football players. Mr. Starr remained as chancellor and professor of law. The university also fired its football coach, Art Briles.

A statement from Baylor President Linda A. Livingstone made no mention of his dismissal. “Judge Starr was a dedicated public servant and ardent supporter of religious freedom that allows faith-based institutions such as Baylor to flourish,” she said.

To the Clintons’ defenders, Whitewater became shorthand for an ever-widening effort by political opponents to find evidence of wrongdoing using the powers of an independent counsel. But Mr. Starr’s probe did bring actual convictions on a lower level, including an 18-month prison sentence for Arkansas business figure Susan McDougal for contempt of court for refusing to answer questions relating to Whitewater-related investments.

Lewinsky, in a tweet, wrote that thoughts of Mr. Starr “bring up complicated feelings,” but acknowledged that it was a “painful loss for those who love him.”

Making the 435-page Starr Report public in 1998 was not easy as an early attempt to use the internet for widespread access. Mr. Starr’s team wrote the document in WordPerfect, but the congressional officials converted it to HTML, “the format used on the internet,” The Washington Post reported at the time. That process resulted in an array of “mostly insubstantial” errors that “did not alter the meaning of Starr’s report.”

Kenneth Winston Starr, the youngest of three children, was born in Vernon, in north Texas, on July 21, 1946. His father was a barber and a Church of Christ minister. His parents were both children of farmers, and family life centered around the church and Sunday school teachings.

Mr. Starr grew up mostly in San Antonio. Widely described as an earnest straight arrow who carried himself with understated confidence, he excelled in all high school endeavors save for athletics and was elected president of his class. He said he was first electrified by national politics during the 1960 presidential campaign and identified in particular with Richard M. Nixon because of their shared hardscrabble background, although he said he later became a member of Young Democrats and a supporter of Hubert H. Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election.

He sold Bibles door-to-door to pay his tuition at what is now Harding University, a Church of Christ school in Searcy, Ark., and threw himself into student activities before transferring to George Washington University after two years.

He recalled the transition as a shock, seeing students protesting the war in Vietnam that he supported (even though he reportedly flunked his physical for the draft). He stood out on campus in other ways, preferring suit and tie as his classroom attire, at an institution where blue jeans prevailed as the sartorial choice of his peers.

He graduated in 1968, then received a master’s degree in political science the next year at Brown University in Providence. He completed his law studies at Duke University in 1973 and began his rapid ascent in legal apprenticeships, ultimately becoming a law clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.

In 1977, he joined the Los Angeles firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher to practice corporate law and impressed one of the partners, William French Smith, who became attorney general after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. His protege followed him to the Justice Department and distinguished himself on high-profile matters that shaped conservative policy on social issues, including reversing federal opposition to organized prayer in school and seeking voluntary paths other than busing to promote school desegregation.

His trajectory was astonishing. At 37, he became the youngest person ever named as a judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a bench viewed as a steppingstone to the Supreme Court.

Azi Paybarah contributed to this report.

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