Whitewater panel calls first lady central figure Mrs. Clinton was key in 'deception,' GOP-led Senate committee says

June 19, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A bitterly divided Senate Whitewater Committee concluded its 13-month investigation yesterday, with the panel's Republican majority issuing a scathing report tagging first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as a central figure in the administration's "pattern of deception and arrogance."

Democrats, calling the majority report "despicable" and a "legislative travesty" intended solely to damage President Clinton in an election year, released a separate report clearing the president and first lady of wrongdoing.

At one of the back-to-back Capitol Hill news conferences where each side tried to highlight its lengthy report, committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York stopped just short of accusing the administration of criminal activity.

But he said the Clintons and their associates engaged in abuses of power. "History will judge these hearings as a revealing insight into the workings of an American presidency that misused its power, circumvented the limits on its authority and attempted to manipulate the truth," he said.

Democrats, led by Maryland's Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, countered that "this yearlong investigation shows no misconduct or abuse of power by [the] president or first lady." The Republicans, Sarbanes said, reached conclusions "that clearly are intended for political impact."

The report focuses far less on Mr. Clinton than the first lady and presents no direct charge against him as president, but it does question some of his actions as governor of Arkansas.

At the core of the alleged abuses, Republicans say, was Mrs. Clinton. "I think we have pretty clear indications of one central figure that has been a major part of this investigation stretching from Arkansas all the way to Washington, and that one person is Hillary Rodham Clinton," said Sen. Rod Grams of Minnesota.

The report strongly implies that Mrs. Clinton lied about her lack of knowledge of the whereabouts of billing records from her former Little Rock, Ark., law firm. The records had been under subpoena for two years when they turned up in the book room of the White House residence last year.

Acknowledging the "grave legal implications" of its theory that the first lady knew where the records were and thus obstructed justice, the report says: "Mrs. Clinton is more likely than any other known individual to have placed the billing records in the book room in August 1995."

The GOP report says Mrs. Clinton had a "powerful motive" in trying to conceal the records. The billing records, it says, document Mrs. Clinton's legal work for a fraudulent savings-and-loan development called Castle Grande.

She has said she has no recollection of having performed any work in connection with Castle Grande. The report says that she "might well have known" about the fraudulent nature of the project that involved a savings and loan owned by the Clintons' partners in the Whitewater land deal.

Relying largely on a sequence of phone calls among Mrs. Clinton and her close associates in the 48 hours after the 1993 suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr., the report also points to Mrs. Clinton as the force behind a "concerted effort" to hinder a search of Foster's office by federal agents.

"Most roads lead from the first lady and back to her," said Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby.

Defending the first lady

Democrats deplored the "venom" directed at Mrs. Clinton. "Every act is portrayed in its most sinister light," said Sarbanes.

From the start, said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, the Republicans "intended to get the first lady." Dodd, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called the probe "the most partisan and politicized hearing in the history of the Senate."

He and other Democrats charged that the hearings -- led by D'Amato, national campaign chairman for likely GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole -- were nothing more than "taxpayer-funded opposition research" for the Republicans.

In large part, the starkly contrasting reports reflected each side's acceptance or rejection of testimony provided by senior White House officials and statements made by the first lady.

In the case of the billing records, Democrats accepted Mrs. Clinton's statements to the press that she did not know how the records came to be in a White House room where they were found by an administration aide.

Similarly, in dismissing the GOP charge that Mrs. Clinton tried to interfere with a search of Foster's office, Democrats accepted the word of several of Mrs. Clinton's associates, who "all testified that they did not speak with Mrs. Clinton about the review of Foster's office."

Republicans, on the other hand, concluded that Mrs. Clinton's ,, chief of staff, Margaret Williams, confidante Susan Thomases and former White House counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum "provided inaccurate and incomplete testimony" in order to conceal Mrs. Clinton's role in the handling of Foster's documents.

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