Why won't the government release the Shaheen Report?

Imagine if President Clinton had claimed he was exonerated by an investigation, but wouldn't release the results.

Published May 17, 2001 4:23PM (EDT)

Imagine for a moment that the White House had been involved in an ethical controversy, and commissioned an investigation that took more than a year. Then, when it had at long last received a 168-page report on the matter in question, imagine that the press office put out a few semi-exculpatory sentences in a self-serving press release, while keeping the rest of the report under wraps.

Would the Washington Post greet that kind of behavior with bland acceptance? Would the rest of the press remain blithely silent?

Such is the sorry history of the investigation conducted by special counsel Michael E. Shaheen Jr. into questions concerning David Hale and his relationship with the "Arkansas Project" that were first revealed by Salon and the Associated Press last year. Allegations of cash payments, free lodging, the use of an automobile and other substantial gifts to Hale from conservative Clinton critics raised more than eyebrows.

Shaheen, who policed prosecutorial ethics for many years at the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, spent more than a year and millions of taxpayer dollars trying to answer those questions. He dispatched FBI agents to retrieve documents and conduct interviews. He hauled a series of witnesses before a grand jury in Fort Smith, Ark., to testify about the Arkansas Project and its dealings with Hale, including Pittsburgh billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, whose foundations financed the project through the American Spectator magazine.

What did the special counsel find? True to his own ethical standards, Shaheen isn't talking; unlike the Office of Independent Counsel, his investigation did not leak and still doesn't. And Kenneth Starr seems to prefer that the public should learn nothing about what Shaheen discovered, beyond his narrow finding that there isn't enough evidence to indict anyone.

The little phrases and sentences snatched from Shaheen's report for the OIC press release left me wondering what context was being omitted. According to the OIC press release, Shaheen's report determined that "many of the allegations, suggestions and insinuations regarding the tendering and receipt of things of value were shown to be unsubstantiated or, in some cases, untrue."

The other snippet lifted from the report elaborated slightly: "In some cases there is little if any credible evidence establishing that a particular thing of value was demanded, offered or received. In other instances, there is insufficient credible evidence to show that a thing of value was provided or received with the criminal intent defined by any of the applicable statutes" (italics added).

So what does all that legalistic verbiage tell us about what really happened? Without the specific information in Shaheen's report, it is impossible to say. To me it seems to say that some of the allegations regarding benefits Hale received from the Arkansas Project were true, others were false and still others remained unproved. It also suggests that in the cases when Hale did get something from the Arkansas Project, there was no proof that it was given with the express purpose of influencing his testimony.

That is a high probative standard, and properly so. But the findings quoted above don't disprove a single word of what was published on this site about David Hale and the Arkansas Project. Neither Salon nor the Associated Press accused Hale's right-wing friends of buying his testimony. But their relationship during the period when Hale was cooperating with Starr did raise disturbing questions, and in the absence of complete information, it still does.

Even if the details of what Shaheen uncovered don't rise to criminal offenses, they may nevertheless be highly embarrassing to the investigation's subjects, including Starr himself. After all, at the time when these odd events occurred, Hale was a witness under the supervision of Starr's office.

Moreover, according to sources quoted by the New York Daily News, "two former Starr staffers were referred [by Shaheen] to the Justice Department for a possible disciplinary probe." (That allegation elicited a "no comment" from Starr's office.)

Why won't Starr release the full text of the Shaheen report? The press release offered no explanation. To date the only excuse available is that the report contains grand jury material. Staring at the five volumes of Lewinsky grand jury testimony and exhibits on my desk -- which bared the most salacious and intimate details of several people's lives -- I can only laugh at this sudden concern for the sanctity of the grand jury room. Redactions might be necessary, but suppression is suspicious.

Two days after Starr put out his three-sentence version of the Shaheen report, the Washington Post published a very peculiar editorial about the controversy. Displaying not the slightest curiosity about the report's complete text, the editorial said that Shaheen "appears to have found nothing untoward with respect to Mr. Starr's handling of his witness"; that the report "appears to confirm backhandedly that Mr. Hale received some money"; and that Shaheen "appears to have concluded that Mr. Starr was not reckless in relying on Mr. Hale."

Why should a newspaper with a crusading, aggressive self-image settle for what "appears to" be true, when there is a fact-filled document sitting in a public official's file cabinet? What happened to the spirit of Watergate, or even Whitewater?

Would the Washington Post -- and the rest of the American media -- allow President Clinton to get away with what Starr has now done? Or would they be screaming bloody coverup and demanding the immediate release of the full text?

The answer is perfectly obvious, and so is this: Starr should release the full text of the Shaheen report now, or else Congress should force him to do so. Until then, we will know no more about David Hale, the Arkansas Project and the Office of Independent Counsel than what Starr wants us to know -- and that appears to be very little indeed.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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