Where's Whitewater?

The independent counsel seems to have forgotten something on his way to the impeachment party.

Published September 11, 1998 12:47PM (EDT)

Where's Whitewater?

That's the question David Kendall, President Clinton lawyer, and other Clinton supporters are asking as the nation finally gets to pore over Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr's lengthy report on possible impeachable offenses committed by the president.

On Friday, Congress posted Starr's report, alleging perjury, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and abuse of power by Clinton in hiding his 18-month-long affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, on the Internet.

Starr's report mentions no impeachable offenses by Clinton as a result of the investigation into the Whitewater land deal, which took up the bulk of Starr's four-year, $40 million inquiry into the president. Indeed, in the entire 445-page report, Starr alludes only once to the Whitewater investigation, citing suspicious parallels between Vernon Jordan's efforts to help convicted Whitewater figure Webster Hubbell financially and to find Lewinsky a job, presumably to buy their silence.

Starr's investigators "recognized parallels between Mr. Jordan's relationship with Ms. Lewinsky and his earlier relationship with a pivotal Whitewater-Madison (Guarantee) figure, Webster L. Hubbell," the independent counsel's report states. "Prior to January 1998, the OIC possessed evidence that Vernon Jordan -- along with other high-level associates of the President and the First Lady -- helped Mr. Hubbell obtain lucrative consulting contracts while he was a potential witness and/or subject in the OIC's ongoing investigation." Starr's office "also possessed evidence that the President and the First Lady knew and approved of the Hubbell-focused assistance," the report says.

Citing these parallels, Starr won Attorney General Janet Reno's recommendation in January to expand his Whitewater investigation into the Lewinsky affair. For several months, Starr's investigation ran two grand juries -- one in Little Rock, Ark., to continue its probe into Whitewater, and another in Washington to investigate the Lewinsky affair. In May, after 30 months, the Arkansas grand jury wrapped up its investigation with a contempt indictment of Susan McDougal, one of the Clintons' partners in the failed Whitewater land deal and an operator of the Madison Guarantee Savings & Loan, which was involved in the land deal.

All in all, Starr's Whitewater investigation produced only a handful of convictions for fraud and other charges. Those convicted included former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker; Susan McDougal's husband, James, who also operated Madison Guarantee; and David Hale, a former municipal judge. Hale, a convicted felon, emerged as a central figure in the Whitewater investigation, alleging that Clinton pressured him to obtain an illegal $300,000 loan for Susan McDougal, which she then used to help bail out the failing Whitewater project. Clinton has always denied Hale's allegations, and the expiration of the Arkansas grand jury without an immediate report of any wrongdoing by Clinton strongly suggested that Starr was unable to make a case against the president.

"Where's Whitewater?" Kendall asked in a 73-page preliminary rebuttal that was released just minutes before Starr's report went up on the Web. "The Office of the Independent Counsel's allegations reportedly include no suggestion of wrongdoing by the President in any of the areas which Mr. Starr spent four years investigating: Whitewater, the FBI files and the White House travel office. What began as an inquiry into a 24-year-old land deal in Arkansas has ended in an inquest into brief, improper personal encounters between the President and Monica Lewinsky."

While Kendall was clearly trying to highlight the time and money Starr wasted on his fruitless Whitewater investigation, Richard Benveniste, the former minority counsel on the Senate Whitewater Committee, said it came as no surprise to him that Starr's report included no Whitewater evidence.

"It didn't surprise me because there was nothing illegal, much less noteworthy, about Whitewater after four years," Benvenisti told Salon. "Secondly, they had long ago leaked that there wouldn't be anything about Whitewater."

Indeed, on April 20, two weeks before the Arkansas grand jury expired, New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and Stephen Labaton wrote that it would be "difficult, if not impossible" for Starr's prosecutor's to build a case against President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton because so much of the case rested on the testimony and credibility of witnesses like Hale. A month before the Arkansas grand jury expired, Salon published allegations that Hale had received payments and other assistance from right-wing enemies of President Clinton. The allegations, which Hale has denied, are now the subject of a separate investigation headed by former senior Justice Department investigator Michael E. Shaheen Jr..

Until then, however, Starr's Whitewater probe dominated the media, providing Clinton's hard-core political foes with a focus around which they concentrated their attacks. Emboldened by Starr's investigation, Clinton's political enemies leveled other charges against the president, including wild and unsubstantiated allegations that Clinton had murdered his friend, White House Counsel Vince Foster, smuggled drugs into Arkansas and used cocaine. These charges all proved to be spurious. Both Starr and his predecessor, Robert Fiske, ruled Foster's death a suicide, and two congressional committees investigated the drug charges and found them false.

But one charge did stick. In December 1993, the American Spectator, a conservative magazine, published a story in which former members of Clinton's Arkansas security detail alleged that he had extramarital affairs while he was governor. One of those with whom Clinton was linked was a woman identified only as "Paula."

Out of that article came the Paula Jones sexual misconduct suit against the president, which the Supreme Court, in a controversial decision, ruled could proceed while the president was in office. By then, Clinton had had a sexual affair with Lewinsky, a former White House intern who confided her trysts with the president to Linda Tripp, a disgruntled Pentagon employee. The president's lawyer for the Jones case, Robert Bennett, had publicly said Tripp was "not to be believed" when she told Newsweek that she had seen another woman, White House volunteer Kathleen Willey, emerge from the Oval Office with her clothing askew and claiming that Clinton had groped her.

To protect herself against further assaults on her credibility, Tripp has claimed, she tape-recorded Lewinsky's account of her affair with the president, turned the evidence over to Starr, taped Lewinsky again wearing an FBI wire, and then shared Lewinsky's story with Jones' lawyers. On Jan. 17, when Clinton was deposed by Jones' lawyers, he was asked if he had ever had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and he said no. That denial, repeated before Starr's grand jury, is now the basis of Starr's allegations of perjury against the president.

But the Whitewater saga isn't over. Under the law, Starr still must submit a report on his investigation of the land deal to the three-judge panel that appointed him. Only then will the public get to see if the results merited the political and media frenzy that surrounded the affair for so long. But it is widely believed the report, when it is delivered, will include no evidence of impeachable offenses by the president or Hillary Clinton.

Asked to reflect on the absence of Whitewater material in Starr's report, the New York Times' Gerth, who broke the first Whitewater story in March 1992, politely declined. "I don't have emotional attachments to my stories," he said in an interview. "I haven't stayed on Whitewater as a crusade ... I've written about a thousand different things in the last six years. I don't have any books. I don't go on TV. I don't have anything invested in my stories."

Gerth recalled that his first Whitewater story was written at a time when the country was still reeling from the Saving & Loan scandal and keenly interested in the connections between those banking institutions and politicians. "And Bill Clinton was a presidential candidate of whom the American people knew nothing," he said. "I was writing for the first time about his associations and business dealings and regulatory dealings with a questionable S&L character. That was the context of that story."

"But where things go is not anything that I have any control over," he added. "Did I expect when I wrote the piece six years ago that there'd be some independent counsel six years later filing a report for possible impeachment over sex activities? Of course not. I couldn't have contemplated that. But neither could have anybody else."

Benveniste, the former minority White House counsel, takes it a step further, blaming Clinton for turning Whitewater into a drowning pool. "Clearly, on the eve of Starr's closing down of his failed investigation after $40 million of taxpayer money, Clinton provided him with at least the basis to charge impropriety and make it stick. Whether it's illegal or criminal or an impeachable offense is another issue, but you could say about Clinton that he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory."

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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