Olson battle blows up

Solicitor general nomination has party leaders at each other's throats.

Published May 17, 2001 2:59AM (EDT)

Ted Olson's nomination for solicitor general turned into a full-fledged partisan battle Tuesday, with Democrats continuing to point out further inconsistencies in the nominee's testimony, and Republicans suggesting Democrats are picking on Olson out of vengeance for the role he played in George W. Bush's legal victory over Al Gore in last fall's presidential contest.

Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in a blistering letter to the ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, didn't outright accuse Democrats of seeking revenge. Instead, he raised the possibility of a "growing public perception that the delay and partisan rancor on the Judiciary Committee ... is an effort to seek retribution for the results of the Supreme Court's decision in Bush vs. Gore, which Mr. Olson skillfully and successfully argued."

The letter from Hatch was in response to a letter sent to him Saturday by Leahy, requesting that the committee proceed "on a bipartisan basis" to investigate Olson's statements regarding the "Arkansas Project," an effort funded in the mid-1990s by billionaire Clinton-hater Richard Mellon Scaife, and housed at conservative journal American Spectator, aimed at digging up dirt on the Clintons.

That letter followed a week that saw Olson's confirmation hearings, which began April 5, delayed. On May 10, the day Olson's nomination was set for a vote, the Washington Post, following on previous reports from Salon, ran a story that further scrutinized Olson's conflicting and vague statements about his involvement in the Arkansas Project, relying heavily on David Brock, a reporter responsible for some of the most explosive anti-Clinton stories for the Spectator.

The Post story had been enough for Hatch, at the time, to postpone the vote for a week, stating that Olson should have time to address "some legitimate questions that have arisen out of that article."

All that changed this week, after the Post reported Tuesday that Hatch had decided against a committee probe of Olson. In Tuesday's letter, Hatch asserted that the additional information and testimonials obtained by the committee "further support Mr. Olson's veracity and truthfulness" in his testimony. "I do not see any issues surrounding the responsiveness of Mr. Olson's answers to questions posed by the Committee and no reason to further delay consideration of his nomination," Hatch wrote.

Leahy clearly disagrees. In a six-page memo released to reporters titled "Summary of Discrepancies in Ted Olson's Testimony," Leahy's office lays out claims that further muddy Olson's stated nonrole in the Arkansas Project.

The Leahy summary includes confirmation that Brock, "in an interview with Democratic staff," had "indicated that while Mr. Olson may not have been involved in the 'origin' or 'management' of the Arkansas Project, he certainly knew the Project existed and what was going on and, in fact, [Brock] discussed articles with Mr. Olson that were based on Arkansas Project research."

The summary also contends that a letter to the committee from Olson dated Tuesday further obfuscates his involvement. In it, according to the summary, Olson concedes that "his firm was hired by the American Spectator in 1994 to do 'legal research, based on allegations that had been reported in the press, regarding criminal laws that might be implicated by such conduct, without undertaking any factual research or professional judgments.'"

This response, according to Leahy's summary, clearly refers to "allegations about the Clintons and, thus, Mr. Olson carefully parses the description of his work in an effort to be consistent with his prior denial of any involvement in the 'conduct of investigations of the Clintons.'"

In perhaps the summary's most controversial allegation, Brock is said to have "suggested that Mr. Olson helped 'engineer' the firing of the Spectator's original publisher, Ronald Burr, who urged an open investigation of payments to David Hale." According to the summary, Brock told Democratic staffers that the credibility of Hale, represented by Olson and the key witness against the Clintons in the Whitewater investigation, would have been damaged if it had been revealed that he received money from the Arkansas Project.

Critical in the back-and-forth bickering between Leahy and Hatch is the importance of Olson's role with Hale, and an investigation into whether Hale was paid money while he cooperated with the Ken Starr investigation of Clinton.

Those allegations surrounding Hale sparked an investigation of Starr's investigation by Michael Shaheen at the Justice Department -- and raised serious conflict-of-interest questions for Starr.

Shaheen's investigation, however, remains under seal. Hatch quotes from a review of the Shaheen investigation that says "many of the allegations, suggestions and insinuations ... were found to be unsubstantiated or, in some cases, untrue." But Leahy contends that since the report is still under seal he has no way of knowing what relevant information about Olson's role in the controversy might be hidden.

Salon conducted an extensive investigation into how Olson came to represent Hale in 1998, and has been raising questions about Olson's involvement with the Arkansas Project since 1998, reporting then not only that the first Arkansas Project meeting occurred in the Washington office of Olson's firm in 1994 but that Olson was an active participant, and had been advising the project since 1993.

The 1998 article by Jonathan Broder and Joe Conason reported:

The first meeting of the Arkansas Project team took place in early 1994 in the Washington, D.C., law office of Theodore Olson, a friend of [Spectator editor R. Emmett] Tyrrell and future Spectator board member, according to participants. Those present included Olson, [Steven] Boynton, [David] Henderson, then-publisher [Ronald] Burr and Michael Horowitz, then a fellow at the conservative think-tank Manhattan Institute, which also receives funding from Scaife.

Leahy has suggested that all of the above persons in attendance at the alleged meeting be interviewed by the committee. Furthermore, the Leahy summary reports that Horowitz has submitted a letter to the committee that says, "I attended one meeting in Mr. Olson's presence at which the matter discussed was legal representation for David Hale, who was facing Congressional testimony and was in need of distinguished Washington counsel." It is unclear from the summary whether Horowitz says what year the meeting occurred.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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