A brutal twist for Clinton rival Nemesis: Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who has resigned effective July 15, believes he never would have been tried on Whitewater charges if Clinton weren't living in the White House.

Sun Journal

June 15, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- For two decades, Jim Guy Tucker, a gifted, young Arkansas politician, has moved in the ever-lengthening shadow of his more illustrious contemporary, Bill Clinton. Over the years, the rivalry between the two Democrats gradually turned to bitter resentment.

Thus it is a brutal twist that Tucker, who was convicted of fraud and conspiracy last week in the first Whitewater-related trial, is resigning as governor as a direct result of a criminal investigation Clinton.

As Tucker sees it, according to his friends, he would never have been tried for these crimes if his nemesis had not been elected to the White House.

Yet Tucker's conviction also has given him more leverage over Clinton's political fortunes than he ever had when the two men were competing for office in Arkansas. Indeed, he could play a pivotal role in influencing the outcome of the larger Whitewater saga.

May 30 -- just two days after the conviction of Tucker and of Clinton's former investment partners James B. and Susan McDougal -- Tucker's lawyer, George B. Collins, flew to Washington to discuss a possible deal with Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

While these talks so far have been inconclusive, the prospect of Tucker's cooperation could strengthen Starr's hand against Clinton and hurt the president's chances of winning re-election in November.

Tucker, 52, who suffers from chronic gastrointestinal problems, is seeking to avoid a prison term and the expense of a lengthy legal appeal of his conviction, as well as the cost of defending himself from a pending second indictment.

On the other hand, if Tucker decides to follow through with his public vow to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, the legal battle would include an appeal of that second indictment -- and the outcome could not only help determine the ultimate scope of Whitewater, but also influence all future investigations by independent counsels.

That appeal would be based on the notion that Starr exceeded his authority as independent counsel by prosecuting cases with no direct link to Clinton. Legal scholars believe that a Supreme Court ruling on this argument could redefine the breadth of the independent counsel statute under which Starr is investigating the president and prosecuting Tucker.

Although Clinton has made a concerted effort to patch up his relationship with Tucker, including telephoning the governor after the verdict to express sympathy and offer words of encouragement, the president said in videotaped testimony during the trial that the animosity between the two runs deep.

It began in large part because Clinton and Tucker are so similar, say many Arkansans. Not only are they both lawyers and close in age, but Clinton and Tucker share the same views on many political issues, as well as the same burning ambition.

Clinton recalled that the two men had their first run-in in 1982, when they were competing for the Democratic nomination for governor -- a job that Clinton had held between 1978 and 1980.

"It was a very difficult, very heated race and it left some hard feelings," he said in his trial testimony. "I was lucky enough to win it. But we were sort of estranged after that."

The rivalry reignited in 1990 when Tucker decided to run for governor, apparently thinking that Clinton would step down to seek the presidency. Instead, Clinton chose to seek re-election and also run for president, forcing Tucker to lower his sights and serve as Clinton's frequently hostile and uncooperative lieutenant governor.

Although Clinton eclipsed him in politics, Tucker was wildly successful in his business ventures between his stints in public office. Investments in cable television have made Tucker a multimillionaire.

Not until Clinton moved to the White House in January 1993 did Tucker finally come into his own as governor and the recognized leader of the state Democratic Party.

But his days in the political spotlight were short-lived. He was soon dogged by allegations linking him to the controversy that was enveloping the Clinton administration.

On May 28, a federal court jury in Little Rock found that Tucker participated in a conspiracy with other Clinton political associates to defraud a federally insured savings and loan owned by the McDougals and a government-backed small-business investment firm owned by the prosecution's star witness, David Hale.

Defense attorneys now recognize that they made a mistake in staking their case almost entirely on the testimony of the president, whose broad-brush testimony was discounted by the jurors as irrelevant to the specific charges at hand.

Stunned by the verdict, Tucker, who had expected to be acquitted on the charge of conspiracy, immediately announced that he would resign from the governorship by July 15 to spare the state further embarrassment.

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