WASHINGTON - With a judge's admonition to wrap up his work with ''all deliberate speed,'' career prosecutor Robert Ray replaced Kenneth Starr on Monday and took over the long-running independent counsel investigation that could still affect the political plans of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Starr bid farewell in a letter that stated his resignation was prompted by the ''intense politicization'' of his work. Starr disclosed he tried unsuccessfully to turn over the remainder of his investigation to the Justice Department.
''The wiser course, I believe, is for another individual to head the investigation,'' Starr wrote.
In front of the courthouse where he was sworn in, Ray promised his prosecutors would operate in ''a prompt, responsible and cost-effective manner,'' while being ''thorough and fair.''
One of the judges who appointed him called for a speedy end to an investigation that polls show the public is tired of. ''There can be no more vital consideration now than closure with all deliberate speed,'' said Richard D. Cudahy of Chicago.
Ray has two investigative matters remaining that the Justice Department declined to accept because of potential conflicts of interest:
-An alleged attempt by Maryland developer and Democratic Party supporter Nathan Landow to influence the testimony of presidential accuser Kathleen Willey.
-Possible false statements regarding Hillary Rodham Clinton's role in the purge of the White House travel office just after the start of her husband's term.
Ray's biggest task could turn out to be the requirement that he write a final report on the wide-ranging Starr investigation that has delved into fraudulent land deals in Arkansas, including a development south of Little Rock called Castle Grande on which Mrs. Clinton engaged in legal work.
Federal regulators concluded the development owned by Mrs. Clinton's Whitewater partner, Jim McDougal, led to losses for his failing savings and loan, which eventually was taken over by the federal government for insolvency.
Ray was part of the legal team that obtained a felony plea from Webster Hubbell, the former law partner of Mrs. Clinton and at one time the No. 3 official in the Justice Department, on a charge of concealing his and Mrs. Clinton's work on the real estate project, Castle Grande. Hubbell says he knows of no wrongdoing by Mrs. Clinton.
The contents of any final report would deal in part with Castle Grande, which could cause political trouble for the first lady in her run for the U.S. Senate from New York.
The three judges who appointed Ray again displayed the tension among them over the five-year duration of Starr's portion of the six-year Whitewater probe.
Judge Cudahy, who said in August it was time for Starr to close up shop, stated that the search for a successor to Starr was limited to senior members of his staff because delays would result if an outsider were chosen.
Judges Peter Fay of Miami and David Sentelle of Washington issued an order that did not refer to a time frame for Ray's investigation.
Reading a statement outside the courthouse after his swearing-in, Ray credited his controversial predecessor with ''extraordinary service to the country at great personal sacrifice over the past five years.
''He gave a lot,'' Ray said of Starr, who will return to work full-time at his private law practice.
On Friday, the Clinton White House suggested Ray is a politically motivated prosecutor, noting that before going to Starr's office, he spent several years working for Independent Counsel Donald Smaltz in the investigation of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.
Ray's family disputed the White House suggestion.
''Bob believes strongly in public service, he believes that people should be held accountable, but he is not politically motivated in his job; that's simply not true,'' said Ray's father, a retired Army colonel who served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War and who came to the courthouse for his son's swearing-in.
Until January 1998, Ray was a registered Democrat in New York City. Ray ran twice for the school board in New York City in nonpartisan elections, losing both times. He now is a registered voter in New Jersey unaffiliated with any political party.
Ray in recent years made four donations totaling $90 in support of Republicans - three to then-Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and one to the Republican National Committee.
While at Princeton University in 1982, young Ray chose the Kennedy administration's Peace Corps as the topic for his senior history thesis, offering extensive praise for the late president.
The 196-page document said Peace Corps volunteers ''brought the spirit of America'' to Third World countries.