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Susan McDougal Acquitted of Obstruction of Justice Charge

By Paul Duggan

A jubilant Susan McDougal prevailed for the first time Monday after years of legal battles with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, as jurors acquitted her of obstructing justice in the Whitewater investigation and deadlocked on the two other charges, resulting in a mistrial.

The result was a major setback for Starr’s office, which said it would decide shortly whether to retry McDougal on the charge that she committed criminal contempt of court by defying orders to testify before Starr’s grand jury.

“We will now carefully assess future steps in light of today’s developments,” Starr’s office said in a statement.

At the White House, President Clinton was “pleased to learn” that his former business partner was acquitted of obstruction of justice, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said. “He wishes all the best for her and her family.”

McDougal, a partner of the Clintons’ in the failed 1980s Whitewater real estate venture, twice refused to testify before a federal grand jury in Starr’s long-running probe of the Clintons’ Arkansas business dealings. She served the maximum 18 months for civil contempt of court for her refusal to testify, and then Starr’s office took the unusual step of charging her with criminal violations for her defiance.

Although one of Starr’s prosecutors in McDougal’s five-week trial called her intransigence “cut and dried” violations of the law, jurors saw far more ambiguity in the case.

After hearing McDougal’s testimony that she refused to answer questions because Starr’s lawyers wanted her to falsely implicate the president in wrongdoing, the jury debated only briefly last Thursday before voting to acquit her of obstruction, one juror said.

Barrett noted that the testimony of Steele and others was allowed because of the obstruction count, and that no such testimony would be allowed in a retrial on the contempt charges. If McDougal is retried, he said, “We would anticipate a much more streamlined prosecution.”