Burton releases new tapes of Hubbell to counter foes Democratic colleague alleged bid to mislead with first transcripts

May 05, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Accused of distorting the words of Webster L. Hubbell, Rep. Dan Burton released more than 50 hours of jail-house recordings yesterday, promising that the full record would be even more damaging to the White House than his committee's initial release of tapes was.

Burton, the fiery chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, exchanged verbal blows with Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, the committee's top Democrat. The issue was the release of taped prison conversations of Hubbell, an old friend of the Clintons and former Justice Department official.

Waxman charged the Indiana Republican with "a systematic effort to mislead the public" by releasing tape transcripts that omitted statements exonerating Hubbell or the first lady, that paraphrased statements to distort their meaning or that "simply made text up."

"It is now clear that the extent of the alteration and selective editing of the tapes is much greater than I previously thought," Waxman said in a letter to Burton.

Burton fired back, "You seem to be operating under the premise that if you lie often enough, it will be accepted as the truth."

Last night, Burton said, "When you hear the other side squealing like a bunch of pigs, you know you're getting closer to the truth."

Because of the blizzard of subpoenas Burton has rained on Democrats, his sometimes profane condemnations of the president and his penchant for conspiracy theories, the House inquiry into 1996 Democratic fund raising has become as much about Burton as about campaign finance abuses.

When Burton launched his investigation last spring, Republicans and Democrats alike fretted that the committee chairman's famous temper and confrontational style would bog down the inquiry in partisanship and give Democrats ample opportunity to focus attention on the committee itself as being hopelessly anti-Clinton.

"Dan is reckless from time to time, and always principled," said Mitch Daniels, a former Reagan White House official and longtime friend of Burton's. "That's a combination Washington is not used to."

Burton's record was no secret. He came to power in Indiana politics in 1982 vowing to overturn school desegregation rulings, courting charges of racism by his opponents, recalled Brian Vargus, an Indiana political scientist.

During the Persian Gulf war, Burton turned heads by calling on President George Bush to use nuclear weapons against Iraq.

But it was with the election of President Clinton that Burton came to the fore. Convinced that Vincent W. Foster Jr., the White House deputy counsel, did not commit suicide, as two independent counsels have concluded, Burton fired a gun at a melon in his backyard to re-enact a death by foul play.

He proposed mandatory testing for the AIDS virus, going so far as to bring his own scissors to the House barbershop for fear of contracting the disease. Former Rep. Andrew Jacobs, an Indiana Democrat who had forged an unlikely friendship with Burton, has said the congressman is so afraid of contracting acquired immune deficiency syndrome that he will not eat soup at restaurants.

Good vs. evil

"He is one of those people who have turned politics into the moral equivalent of war," Vargus said. "He sees the Republican Party as good and the Democrats as the unequivocal representatives of evil. And he will do anything to defeat that evil."

Democrats have returned fire. The Justice Department is still investigating allegations that Burton "shook down" Democratic lobbyist Mark Siegel for a $5,000 campaign donation, threatening to shut Siegel's Pakistani clients out of Republican circles if he did not produce the cash. Burton has denied the allegations.

The yearlong campaign finance investigation has been frustrating to both Republicans, who accuse the White House and its allies of obstructing justice, and Democrats, who insist that it is a partisan witch hunt. But it exploded last month when Burton, in a newspaper interview, called Clinton a "scumbag" and said, "That's why I'm out to get him."

From that point, Burton lost any chance of gaining Democratic cooperation, said a Republican investigator for the Senate's campaign finance inquiry, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Siegel added: "The great fear of Republican leadership was that this loose cannon was going to fall off the deck. He didn't quite fall off the deck until this month or last."

Defender

Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi came to Burton's defense.

"He's trying to get at the truth," Lott said. "The White House is trying to block the truth. Go ahead and release them all. Let's just let the American people decide."

Republicans suspect Hubbell of taking $700,000 from Clinton allies to remain quiet about information that could implicate the Clintons in wrongdoing surrounding the Whitewater land deal. Of that money, the committee says, $100,000 came from James Riady, an Indonesian businessman who has been implicated in illegal donations to Democratic candidates.

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