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Whitewater bandwagon set to roll again: The inconclusive hearings may have to restart from scratch, writes Rupert Cornwell in Washington

THE FIRST Whitewater hearings have ended, leaving in their wake extreme discomfort at the top of the US Treasury Department, inquisitorial fatigue among House and Senate Banking Committee members and fearsamong Democrats that the entire exercise may have to be repeated from scratch.

Two weeks of interrogation of senior White House and Treasury officials failed to show whether their ill-judged contacts over the progress of a government inquiry into Madison Guaranty - the Arkansas savings bank owned by Bill and Hillary Clinton's one-time partner in the Whitewater property venture - added up to an attempt at a cover-up.

That controversy, however, has been swept out of the headlines by the bombshell announcement by a panel of federal judges here, at the very moment the hearings were wrapping up on Friday afternoon, that the special Whitewater prosecutor, Robert Fiske, was being replaced by a former senior law officer of the Bush administration.

The White House has tried to put a phlegmatic face on things, promising at the weekend it would co-operate as fully with Kenneth Starr, Solicitor General between 1989 and 1993, as it had with Mr Fiske and his 40-strong legal team, who for months have been working in Little Rock to unravel the tangle of 1980s Arkansas financial dealings at the heart of the Whitewater affair.

Privately though, Clinton aides were astonished and dismayed by the change. At the very least it ensures the inquiry will drag out further: how much further depends on whether Mr Starr keeps on the Fiske staff and picks up where his predecessor left off, or decides to begin the entire investigation anew, with a legal team of his own.

At worst, it could mean yet more intense scrutiny of Mr Clinton's career. Mr Starr is widely respected as a fair-minded lawyer. But he will cut the President no slack whatsoever. He has for instance publicly argued that Mr Clinton has no right to claim immunity while in office from the sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones, involving an alleged episode from 1991 before he was elected.

Equally troubling for the White House - if a Washington Post report yesterday is correct - is that the three judges dropped Mr Fiske partly because of complaints by 10 conservative Republican congressmen and a notorious anti-Clinton activist that he was not 'independent' enough.

Republicans hailed Mr Fiske (who has ties to their party) when he was appointed by the Attorney General, Janet Reno, earlier this year. But they changed their tune when Mr Fiske found no criminal or ethical wrongdoing over the Madison inquiry, and disappointed conspiracy theorists by ruling unequivocally that the July 1993 death of the former White House lawyer was a suicide.

The hearings on Capitol Hill threw up nothing to shake these conclusions. Late-night session after late-night session went over the same well-trodden ground. 'Every question that needs to be asked has been asked,' said a weary Jim Sasser, Democratic Senator for Tennessee, at one point. 'But I'm not sure everyone has asked it.'

The immediate uncertainty surrounds the top ranks of the Treasury Department, and the Deputy Secretary, Roger Altman ('Roger the dodger' as one Republican predictably dubbed him) in particular. His version of the contacts directly contradicts that of Jean Hanson, the Treasury's senior lawyer. After a decent interval, one or other will surely have to go. The betting is that, sooner or later, both will - a blow for a department that has been one of this administration's few successes.