A judge called for an investigation into links among Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr and conservatives, saying groups accused of funneling money to a key government witness might be behind his removal from a case.

The statement came Wednesday from U.S. District Judge Henry Woods, a lifelong Democrat. He was assigned to hear a fraud and conspiracy case against then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker until the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals removed him in March 1996.Starr asked that Woods be removed after the judge tossed out Tucker's initial indictment. Tucker also is a Democrat.

An Arkansas woman claims Whitewater witness David Hale received money from conservative activists working for a foundation that publishes the American Spectator magazine - and that Hale gave the magazine information about Starr's investigation.

Woods said it was "very disturbing to consider the possibility that this group" could interfere with the workings of the judicial system.

"It is important to me, and I believe to the integrity of the judicial process, to know whether any person in the justice system, including those in (Starr's office) or in the legislative branch, was aware of machinations to affect and determine what judge would preside over the case," he said.

Hale was a witness at a 1996 trial that resulted in Whitewater figure Susan McDougal's conviction for fraud, for which she was sentenced to two years in prison.

Starr said Tuesday that he hasn't decided whether he will look into alleged payments to Hale or ask the Justice Department to appoint a special investigator.

American Spectator publisher Terry Eastland has said he was not aware of any money being given to Hale. But he and the magazine's foundation are conducting an audit to track $1.7 million dedicated to their "Arkansas Project," which was set up to dig up information on the Clintons.