McDougal's Death: Starr's Loss

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WASHINGTON: The death of James McDougal in prison Sunday is a heavy blow for Ken Starr. McDougal, the former Whitewater partner and friend of the Clintons, was what Starr called the "epicenter" of his investigation into the failed land deal. Not that he was the most credible of witnesses: He gave contradictory accounts of events, and began to cooperate with the independent counsel only after he was looking at a staggering 81 years in jail. "I just got sick and tired of lying for the fellow," said McDougal in explaining why he had turned against the President. Lawyers for his ex-wife, Susan, said he had "significant emotional problems."

"His value as a witness was extremely limited," says TIME Washington correspondent Jeff McAllister, "because he was an alcoholic and a manic depressive." So McDougal's testimony might never have held up in court. But he was a key figure behind the scenes, helping Starr corroborate evidence and acting as a kind of built-in lie detector for the Whitewater team. Without him, Starr will have a tough time with former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker, who used money from McDougal's failed S&L and started cooperating a mere two weeks ago. There'll be fresh meat for Clinton conspiracy theorists, no doubt -- and Susan McDougal can expect an urgent call from Starr's operatives any day now.