Fear of hearings

March 15, 1994|By William Safire

NON-INDEPENDENT counsel Robert Fiske, the Democrats' favorite Republican lawyer, is doing the job the Clinton administration hired him to do: keep the Congress from holding public hearings into the '80s wrongdoing in Arkansas and '90s cover-up in Washington.

The White House strategy is to raise the criteria for wrongdoing to the criminal level, thus sealing all evidence of statehouse sleaze and presidential abuse of power. If wrongdoing by Democrats is not prosecutable, goes this curious argument, it should be kept secret.

Mr. Fiske was chosen by the people he is investigating for good reason: He would actively help prevent dreaded hearings. This improper intervention by the Clintons' hand-picked counsel into the checks and balances between legislative and executive branches is welcomed by Democrats in Congress fearful of Whitewater contamination in this fall's elections.

The Clinton-Fiske contention that press reporting and congressional oversight harms his pristine probe collapses under two facts:

First, the December revelation by the Washington Times of the secret handoff of the damning Whitewater file -- which was also evidence of unlawful work by a White House official on private dealings -- triggered the public's demand that the Clintons stop judging their own case and appoint an outside investigator.

Second, the questioning by Sen. Al D'Amato in a routine banking hearing revealed the collusion between so-called independent regulators and White House damage controllers. Only that senatorial revelation, followed by media prodding -- and not any investigation by Fiske's furniture-shopping Washington staff -- provoked Mr. Fiske into his applause-winning paroxysm of subpoenas.

The next use of the non-independent counsel in the Democrats' containment of Whitewater will be the delaying tactic of an "interim report." White House aides are confident that Mr. Fiske can fend off calls for congressional hearings with the promise of a quick report on the cover-up since October. (A faithless Treasury counsel tipped off Bernard Nussbaum, who tipped off the White House cover-up coordinator, who tipped off the president -- who "cannot remember" who warned him he was going to be named as beneficiary in a criminal referral. It was Bruce Lindsey, who misled reporters at the time.)

Democratic congressional leaders think Mr. Fiske will find this pattern of sustained impropriety to fall short of criminal conspiracy. Although the unlawful Treasury "heads up" may have given the Rose Law Firm the time needed to commence searching and shredding, there is no tape-recorded smoking gun.

If the hoped-for Fiske interim report in April raps knuckles but does not recommend prosecution, Democrats will say "See? No serious wrongdoing, so no hearings." This reliance on Mr. Fiske is why Democrats refuse to let the Independent Counsel Act -- which could lead to the appointment of truly independent counsel -- out of conference.

House Banking chairman Henry Gonzalez, scourge of Iraqgate RTC Republicans, closes his eyes to Democratic corruption. Senate Banking chairman Don Riegle of the Keating Five protects his future lobbying career with this final act of partisan perfidy. But hearings-containment will not work; hypocrisy asks too much.

Why are Democrats frantically avoiding hearings? Because they know televised hearings transform "affairs" into "scandals." Voters now bored by secondhand accounts will be transfixed by the sight of a new set of venal politicians, relentless questioners, corrupting contributors, candid couriers and squirming aides -- instant celebrities in tomorrow's political folklore. Star of the production will be Hillary Rodham Clinton, ungrandjuried in Mr. Fiske's opening round, whose handlers seek to dampen future firestorms by leaking word that false deductions or undeclared income might, with civil penalties, amount to a piddling $40,000. Nothing indictable -- and therefore, Clintonites vainly hope, not the stuff of hearings.

Which should remind us: Where is the Internal Revenue Service in all this? Was the easy suborning of the RTC matched by IRS lassitude? If that division of Mr. Clinton's anything-goes Treasury Department has not for years been auditing returns of Whitewater, Madison and the Clintons -- and has not been referring cheating to prosecutors -- then that agency is a part of the problem.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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