Special prosecutor is needed to investigate the Clinton campaign's fund raising


WASHINGTON -- It is easy to make a case against the extensive use of independent counsels -- usually called special prosecutors. There have been too many of them, and some have taken too long and spent too much money on relatively minor transgressions by public officials.

It also could be argued that the Justice Department could be trusted to carry out many of these investigations. It has many capable professionals who are not going to protect a sitting administration at the expense of their own integrity and reputations.

Nevertheless, things have now reached the point at which an independent counsel is needed to determine whether laws were broken and by whom in financing President Clinton's 1996 campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The voters are entitled to an explanation in which they can have some confidence.

One argument against naming a special prosecutor has been that the subject of the inquiry would be the party committee rather than the public officials to whom the law was meant to be applied. That argument is specious.

Among those whose conduct has been called into question are President Clinton, Vice President Gore, White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes and several officials of the Commerce Department, as well as, of course, the committee itself.

With each new disclosure of suspicious fund-raising, the president soberly tells the press that he knows nothing about it, but it deserves to be thoroughly investigated. The White House lawyer assigned to handle the public relations of the issue, Lanny Davis, tells everyone there is no proof that the White House or administration altered policy to pay off the donors of those huge campaign contributions.

That line is growing a little thin. The Wall Street Journal has reported on a rich contract given by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to two Boston businessmen who raised $3 million for the campaign. The Boston Globe has spelled out a remarkable correlation between businessmen who kicked in generously and those who were invited on Commerce Department trade missions.

Generous Guamanians

The Washington Post reported that administration policy toward the use of imported low-wage workers in Guam changed after Hillary Clinton visited the territory and after contributors from Guam gave $900,000 to the national committee -- not too shabby for a tiny island of 140,000 population.

There are almost daily new reports on the foreign connection with the Democratic committee and White House. The Washington Post has discovered at least a strong suggestion that China funneled money into the Democratic campaign. Lippo, the Indonesian conglomerate with a base in Little Rock, hired Webster Hubbell, one of the Clintons' oldest and closest friends, for $250,000 after he was convicted of padding expenses charged to his -- and Hillary Clinton's -- old law firm. That may not have been a payoff, but it does look like one to the untutored eye.

There is, in short, enough smoke to have the Republicans in Congress licking their chops over the prospect of spelling out the details in public hearings.

A decision by Attorney General Janet Reno to seek an independent counsel could delay or halt those congressional inquiries. Witnesses being called before grand juries that could indict them may not be available to tell their stories for Congress and the television cameras.

The investigations might run more than a year, and perhaps two or three if the special prosecutor followed the deliberate pace of some who have held such positions in the past. That, in turn, could mean that voters might not have much solid information on the cases before their next chance to register their views, in the 1998 midterm elections.

The special prosecutor approach to a situation like this may take too long and cost too much. But such is the stench from what we already know about the financing of the Clinton campaign that there is no reasonable alternative.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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