Sarbanes: Where's the proof? Whitewater panel's top Democrat sees no smoking gun yet

February 11, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith

DAY AFTER DAY, Paul S. Sarbanes watches Republicans lob rhetorical depth charges into the frothy brew of self-dealing, straw purchases and missing documents known as Whitewater.

Sitting in Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building, the Maryland Democrat listens to testimony with fingertips steepled before his sharply focused eyes. Occasionally, he strolls behind the raised committee members' table with the grace of the Princeton basketball player he used to be -- until he hears something that quickly draws him back to his seat.

Mr. Sarbanes is ranking minority member of the U.S. Senate's special Whitewater investigating committee. Some have called him President Clinton's prime defender, but the senator demurs, describing himself instead as guardian of the record, protector of the process and an objective judge of the facts.

"I started with a premise that was open to finding a little, a bit more or some very bad stuff. I went into the process open to going down that path if the facts took us down that path," he said during a recent interview.

A judicious man, Mr. Sarbanes is aware that his role brings substantial risk. If the hearings uncover some incontrovertible evidence of corruption he could look like a defender of the indefensible.

Originally, Whitewater investigators were concentrating on Bill and Hillary Clinton's involvement with a failed Arkansas real estate deal. But the investigation has widened to include possible obstruction of justice and other questionable acts.

So far, the Whitewater committee has spent $1.4 million, federal savings and loan investigators paid about $4 million for a study and the tab for special prosecutors now exceeds $30 million -- without scoring a direct hit on the Clintons.

Last month, Hillary Clinton appeared before a federal grand jury to explain how billing records from her old law firm turned up at the White House two years after they were subpoenaed.

The president three times has answered questions under oath for a special prosecutor. And last week, a federal judge ordered him to testify in the criminal trial of Susan and James McDougal, the Clintons' former partners in the Whitewater deal.

The McDougals want the president's testimony to counter a keyprosecution witness, David Hale, who is expected to swear that Mr. Clinton pressured him to make a fraudulent $300,000 loan to the McDougals. Mr. Clinton has denied doing so.

To the delight of the Republicans, the Clintons' continual association with shady financial dealings and the possible obstruction of justice has raised new character questions that will surely provide political ammunition for Mr. Clinton's Republican opponent in this year's presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sarbanes has been increasingly critical of thetone and conduct of the hearings as directed by the Republican majority.

"I've had to counter what I think are invalid conclusions that were being drawn on the other side," he said. "We're getting these assertions: 'Aha! Here's a smoking gun!' Then you have the hearing and it turns out there's no smoking gun. There's a perfectly innocuous explanation for what occurred.

"You've got a lot of guys down there [in the hearing room] making wild allegations. Someone in the media gets ahold of them and they write a big story. So you get a big story that [one of the Clintons' associates] has alleged such and such about the president -- but was there anything to it or not?

"The explanation never catches up with the allegation," he said.

The story of David Hale, one of the Whitewater principals, may be instructive, he suggested. Mr. Hale "is in a lot of trouble for a lot of reasons," Mr. Sarbanes observed. To minimize his exposure to fines and jail, Mr. Hale may have launched a splashy allegation -- to be of use to the prosecution and thereby getting a reduced sentence.

Questions from Republican members of the Whitewater panel proceed from the assumption that Mr. Clinton and his wife "must" have known of questionable activities within their partners' S&L -- and may have acted to protect them when federal regulators intervened.

Where is their proof? Mr. Sarbanes asked.

"It's always possible as long as you're continuing an inquiry that we'll find something, but I haven't seen it yet," he said. "I don't think there should be a whitewash, but I don't think there should be a witch hunt either."

Mr. Sarbanes said Mrs. Clinton may feel he should be waging a more vigorous defense of her, a report he finds somewhat pleasing. He remains eager to be seen as a defender of the process.

"We have the task of assuring that a fair hearing should be conducted," he said, adding: "I think that's a responsibility that every member of the committee should be carrying and if it's not being carried, then it's doubly important that I assert that position."

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