After a high-flying ride, it's just humble pie for Hubbell

December 01, 1997|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- For Webster Hubbell, this is a holiday season for eating humble pie -- up to a point, at least.

Hubbell is wearing his hair shirt everywhere. One day it is a long story in the Washington Post, the next an article in the New York Times Magazine. Turn on the radio talk shows and there he is showing a proper contrition after 19 months in a federal prison.

'Friends in High Places'

He is, of course, flogging a book, a memoir entitled ''Friends in High Places'' that is being published this week. This is what the mighty do when they fall these days: Put it all between hardcovers and hope for a best seller.

For Webb Hubbell, it has been a long fall indeed. Four years ago he was associate attorney general, second-ranking official in the Justice Department. And by most accounts, he was an effective and popular public official.

Then there were those friends in high places. Hubbell was a longtime intimate of President Clinton and a former law partner and friend of Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Rose Law Firm. His history was one success after another, from his days as a football star at the University of Arkansas through his stints as mayor of Little Rock and, far more important, chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

His access to the White House was recognized as evidence of how much power he enjoyed. He played golf with the president, was invited over for movies. He talked and socialized regularly with other friends from Arkansas who also were in high places, including White House chief of staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty and deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster, another Rose Law partner and his closest friend.

But Hubbell was brought down by a long history of misusing the funds of his law firm and its clients to pay his personal bills. In the four years before he came to Washington, he stole $150,000 from clients and more than $300,000 from the firm. As his conduct became clear to his partners, his whole life fell apart. In March of 1994, he resigned from the Justice Department to deal with what he called ''a billing dispute'' with the firm. Nine months later he pleaded guilty to mail fraud and tax evasion.

Hubbell ended up spending the 19 months at a minimum-security federal prison in Maryland, then two months in a halfway house. He now lives modestly with his wife and daughter, relying largely on his wife's post as an assistant to the secretary of the Department of the Interior.

A nonperson

He is a kind of nonperson at the moment. He has not spoken to either of the Clintons in three years, and others who were close to him reportedly avoid him -- fearful that any association will make them targets for the Whitewater special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, who sent him to jail in 1994 and is still investigating his behavior.

Hubbell doesn't alibi his conduct in the law firm. He tells his interviewers that what he did was inexcusable and that he blames himself for the harm he has brought to his family and old colleagues in the law. His contrition seems unalloyed.

But only up to a point -- and it is a true sticking point. Mr. Starr's interest now is what happened to Hubbell after his fall and specifically whether the White House arranged for him to receive large consulting fees in 1994 in exchange for his continued silence on anything to do with the Whitewater real-estate deal back in Arkansas.

It already has been established that Mr. McLarty and other old friends in the administration tried to help Hubbell stay afloat financially as a consultant after he left the Justice Department. It is the kind of thing people do for friends in trouble and in this case it worked handsomely.

Consulting fees

In those months before he went to prison, Hubbell was paid $400,000 in consulting fees, much of which apparently came from longtime supporters of the Clintons.

The most prominent was James Riady, whose Indonesian banking firm had become a major player in Arkansas banking. After several visits to the White House, Mr. Riady paid Hubbell $100,000 that year but it has never been clear what services he provided in return.

In his book-peddling interviews, Hubbell has said repeatedly, as he put it to the New York Times, that ''a good lawyer doesn't talk about his clients.'' In fact, he is claiming a privilege that doesn't exist for him since he lost his license to practice law.

It is impossible not to feel some sympathy for anyone who has fallen so far so fast. But Webb Hubbell's refusal to discuss his ''clients'' makes it more difficult.

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

Pub Date: 12/01/97

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