WASHINGTON -- Hours before President Clinton tried to quell the Whitewater controversy by holding a news conference, a House Republican launched a bruising attack on the president yesterday, charging him with displaying "the arrogance of power" and extraordinary hypocrisy in his handling of the matter.
Speaking for 45 minutes from the House floor, Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, the top Republican on the House Banking Committee and a leading GOP critic of Whitewater, detailed a list of alleged improprieties, cover-up tactics and ethical lapses, saying that, for the president, they added up to a "character deficit."
"On the landscape of political scandals, Whitewater may be a bump, but it speaks mountains about 'me generation' public ethics," said Mr. Leach. "In a nutshell, Whitewater is about the arrogance of power, [the] Machiavellian machinations of single-party government."
Mr. Leach's blistering remarks, carried live by several cable stations including CNN, came after the Democratic chairman of the banking committee rebuffed the ranking minority member by canceling a hearing scheduled for yesterday that Republicans had intended to use to explore Whitewater.
The charges the Iowa lawmaker outlined yesterday included some involving meetings last fall between White House aides and officials of the Resolution Trust Corp. -- meetings that are now being examined by Whitewater special prosecutor Robert B. Fiske Jr. and that recently resulted in the resignation of White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum.
Mr. Leach suggested that federal regulators tried to tamper with the federal investigation of Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, the Little Rock thrift whose owner was the Clintons' partner in the Whitewater land deal and the collapse of which cost taxpayers up to $60 million.
Mr. Leach said yesterday that Washington RTC lawyer April Breslaw visited the Kansas City RTC office, which was investigating the failure of Madison "to pass on the determined message that senior RTC officials in Washington wanted it understood that they wished to claim Whitewater was not responsible for any losses at Madison."
The Kansas City investigators, whose referrals to the Justice Department in October included the Whitewater case, "courageously . . . refused to allow Washington RTC objections to change the content of the referrals," Mr. Leach said.
Ms. Breslaw has denied that she had tried to influence the investigation, ABC News reported last night.
Asked about the allegation at his new conference last night, Mr. Clinton said that he had no knowledge of any attempt by RTC officials to keep Whitewater out of the agency's criminal referrals to the Justice Department.
"Apparently [Mr. Leach] didn't even charge that any political appointee of our administration had any knowledge of this. So he may be talking about an internal dispute within the RTC from career Republican appointees, for all I know," Mr. Clinton said, noting that all the appointees of the relatively young RTC were hired under Republican administrations.
The congressman said the interference by the White House suggested that the independence of the regulatory agency was "flagrantly violated" in an effort to protect Mr. Clinton.
"Accountability is in order," Mr. Leach said. "A constitutional crisis this is not. The presidency neither should be jeopardized nor debilitated. Rather than high crimes and misdemeanors, the issue today relates to high improprieties and breaches of the public trust."
Meanwhile, senior presidential advisers George Stephanopoulos and Bruce Lindsey testified yesterday before a federal grand jury investigating possible White House interference with federal regulators. Mr. Lindsey, who testified for nearly four hours, said that he answered all questions. "I have complete confidence, once all the facts are out, nothing improper was done by anyone at the White House," he said.
Mr. Leach focused his attack yesterday on the original Whitewater land deal that the Clintons entered into in the late '70s and their subsequent entanglements with Madison.