Congress to open potentially embarrassing hearings on Whitewater, Waco

July 17, 1995|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Hoping to unearth politically embarrassing revelations, congressional Republicans will begin hearings this week on two of the most sensitive issues that have confronted the Clinton administration: the Whitewater affair and the government's assault on the Branch Davidian sect near Waco, Texas.

Although preparations for the hearings have produced no major revelations, the proceedings are expected to prove highly distracting for the White House because it is already dealing with Bosnia, the budget and a re-election campaign in which the president's character is certain to be challenged.

As a sign of how embarrassing the hearings could become, Republicans investigating Whitewater plan to call Webster Hubbell tomorrow as the first witness. He is a Clinton confidant for many years who was a former senior Justice Department official.

Hubbell was sentenced in June to a 21-month prison sentence for mail fraud and tax evasion after he pleaded guilty to bilking his clients and law firm of almost $400,000.

Hubbell was a law partner of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vincent Foster Jr. at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Ark.

Mr. Foster, deputy White House counsel, died July 20, 1993, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to law-enforcement officials.

The central focus of the hearings are the investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death and the removal of files from his office in the West Wing of the White House shortly after he died.

The stakes during the two hearings are also high for Republicans, who are likely to be seen as grandstanding unless the hearings produce new evidence of wrongdoing or, at least, shed new light on the issues.

None of the major networks has agreed to televise the hearings live, nor has CNN or C-span, which said it would tape the hearings and show them when its schedule allowed.

Whitewater hearings held last summer when the Democrats controlled Congress were not widely followed, although they sent tremors through Washington, led to the resignations of three senior Treasury officials and brought highly conflicting testimony that damaged the administration's credibility.

Those hearings were about accusations that officials at the Treasury Department held improper discussions with White House staff members about the investigation of a savings association at the center of the Whitewater case.

In the House, two committees will begin eight days of hearings about Waco on Wednesday. The hearings are expected to explore management decisions by law-enforcement agencies involved: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI.

The hearings will culminate at the end of the month with the testimony of Attorney General Janet Reno. She has never faced hostile questioning from members of Congress on the Waco raid, which ended in a fire that killed about 80 Branch Davidians when federal agents tried to force them out by filling the compound with tear gas on April 19, 1993.

Hoping to blunt criticism, the Treasury Department has said the House proceedings are little more than a platform for opponents of gun control to rail against the administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the agency that enforces gun regulations.

The Republicans opened themselves to such criticism by having experts hired by the National Rifle Association accompany them on a trip to Texas last month to examine remnants of weapons found at the Davidian compound.

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