Whitewater probes dry up Casting net wide fails to catch anything fishy

April 07, 1996|By Jeff Stein

You can almost hear the air hissing out of the Whitewater balloon.

A half-dozen pinpricks in the past two weeks -- from Congress, from official reports, and from a few reporters punching holes in the much-ballyhooed book on the "scandal" -- have begun to sink the Whitewater balloon and bring the 3-year-old flying circus back to earth.

It started when the Senate began tiptoeing away from Sen. Alphonse M. D'Amato's increasingly embarrassing Clinton bash, which has so fascinated Capitol Hill and the Washington media these past many months. In March, the Long Island Republican's Whitewater hearings began to smell like a party that should have ended a few hours earlier, with the last guests leaving and the host waving a bottle and begging them to stay. In the end, Mr. D'Amato didn't have the votes to keep the committee going ad infinitum, if not ad nauseam.

More importantly, the public is beginning to ask what Mr. D'Amato has wrung from his 8-month-long extravaganza, whose only exciting moment was off-stage, when somebody found the Rose Law Firm's billing records on a table in the Clintons' White House living quarters.

Big deal. It turned out that the records bolstered what the Clintons had been saying all along. That's the problem with the Whitewater Committee: It keeps claiming kills when it only wings somebody.

Speaking of killings, Special Prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr has spent $13.4 million thrashing around in Whitewater the past 14 months. Even by Washington standards, that's serious money. And when you hear other D.C. lawyers calling it unseemly, you vTC know that things are getting out of hand.

You can bet Mr. Starr won't be wrapping up his "probe" anytime soon, however. He's the Energizer Bunny of special prosecutors, going off in new directions when he can't run up anything in the places where he's been. Unfortunately, thanks to Richard Nixon and Watergate, Mr. Clinton's Justice Department has no way to stomp on the "independent" Mr. Starr, no matter how little he produces or how much he spends.

But like Senator D'Amato, Mr. Starr's partisan Republican agenda is beginning to show and, along with it, some unseemly revelations about his off-hours pursuits. As Joe Conason reported in the New York Observer, a weekly paper that manages to go after Republicans and Democrats with equal glee, "Mr. Starr did not sever his ties to his private law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, when he took the Whitewater prosecutor's job last year."

That is no small matter, Mr. Conason point out, because Mr. Starr's firm was being sued by the Resolution Trust Corporation, the federal agency charged with cleaning up the savings and loan mess that is at the heart of the Whitewater affair.

"As those RTC officials pondered whether and how to settle the claims against his law firm, Mr. Starr was considering whether to call them before his grand jury, and, perhaps, charge them with obstruction of justice," Mr. Conason wrote.

Even by Washington standards, that's the appearance of a conflict of interest, which is all you need to disqualify a prosecutor. That, after all, is what prompted the resignation of his predecessor, Robert Fiske.

"Even worse," Mr. Conason reported in his exclusive story, Mr. Starr didn't tell his own ethics counsel, Sam Dash, about the RTC conflict of interest for eight months.

Mr. Conason has also charged that Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Stewart seriously misread a key Whitewater document during the research for "Blood Sport," the book that le tout Washington has anointed the final word on Whitewater and the Clintons, portrayed as venal schemers (who, by the way, haven't been charged with anything). In a recent clash with Mr. Conason on the Charlie Rose Show, Mr. Stewart smoothly insisted he hadn't misread the document at all, even though he'd overlooked a final page that totally exonerated Mrs. Clinton from any wrongdoing whatsoever.

Speaking of the fabled RTC, its own investigation of Whitewater, conducted by the respected outside law firm of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, has also given the Clintons a clean slate. Throughout its report on the machinations of Little Rock banker Jim McDougal, the firm used such terms as "no basis to charge the Clintons no application to the Clintons no evidence that Mrs. Clinton knew anyone might need the files."

"The conspiracy theory is hopelessly flawed," the firm said of the charges that the Clintons conspired with Mr. McDougal over Castle Grande, a mobile home development.

Oddly, all these developments have been slighted or, or in the case of Mr. Starr's apparent conflicts of interest, ignored by the national media. Only New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis has highlighted the RTC report on Whitewater, which a wag once declared "a cover-up without a crime."

But that may soon change. The pinpricks in the balloon are beginning to have their effect.

The grumbling about the excessive attacks on the Clintons is getting louder. Pretty soon, even the Republicans and their prosecutors may hear what the majority of Americans have been saying all along about the Clintons and Whitewater: "Give it up -- there's nothing there."

Jeff Stein is the author of "A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War."

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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