Burton fires chief aide amid outcry over editing of Hubbell prison tapes Gingrich reportedly demanded staffer's ouster

May 07, 1998|By Susan Baer and Jonathan Weisman | Susan Baer and Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Under increasing fire from colleagues for his handling of an investigation into President Clinton's campaign fund raising, Rep. Dan Burton dismissed yesterday his chief investigator, a staffer long regarded as a fierce anti-Clinton activist.

Burton asked the investigator, David N. Bossie, to resign at the insistence of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who dressed down the Indiana congressman at a closed-door Republican session yesterday morning, House sources said.

After the meeting, Gingrich said Burton had "fired the one person he should have fired."

The usually fiery Burton then apologized to Republicans "if this matter caused any embarrassment."

Bossie, a 32-year-old Marylander whose aggressive tactics have put him in the spotlight in the past, handled the editing of the taped prison conversations of Webster L. Hubbell, the former Clinton confidant and Justice Department official, that were released last week.

Burton has been harshly criticized by Democrats -- and increasingly, by Republicans -- for editing the tapes in a way that cast the most sinister light on Hubbell's Whitewater-related comments and omitted Hubbell's claims of innocence.

At a joint news conference yesterday with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, Clinton said the release of the Hubbell tapes was "clearly" a violation of privacy.

In a letter to Republican lawmakers, Burton said he took responsibility for "some mistakes and omissions" that were made.

"I am sickened by the thought that anyone would think that I would purposely release anything less than the completely accurate information," he wrote.

But the letter, and Bossie's forced resignation, failed to calm the discontent surrounding Burton, who only weeks ago called the president a "scumbag."

In a meeting of House Republican leaders Tuesday, Rep. Rick A. Lazio of New York railed against Burton's conduct, saying his inflammatory remarks and blunders had shifted attention away from allegations of Democratic wrongdoing.

Asked whether Burton should step down as head of the investigation into campaign finance abuses in the 1996 election, Lazio said, "That's going to be a question for House Republican leadership to answer."

House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt plans to introduce a House resolution next week to remove Burton from the investigation if he does not step down.

The measure would not strip Burton of his chairmanship of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee but would remove him as head of the campaign fund-raising inquiry.

According to a committee source, Burton decided to release the Hubbell tapes at the urging of Bossie and over the strong objections of the committee's chief counsel, Richard D. Bennett, a Baltimore lawyer.

Bennett, a former U.S. attorney in Maryland, argued that the tapes added nothing to the committee's inquiry, the source said, and that their release was not worth the potential backlash.

Bennett took over as chief counsel in September after his predecessor, John P. Rowley III, and several other top Republican staffers abruptly quit the investigation, citing their clashes with Bossie.

Rowley, in his resignation letter, noted Bossie's "unrelenting, XTC self-promoting actions."

One key conflict was Bossie's continued interest in focusing the inquiry on Hubbell, said those familiar with Rowley's departure.

Gingrich had been wary of Bossie ever since Rowley's resignation. Finally this week, said a committee source, the House speaker told Burton, "I want this guy out of there."

Bossie, a native of Burtonsville, Montgomery County, who lives at the volunteer fire station there, remained defiant yesterday. In a resignation letter, he said the White House "mischaracterized" the editing of the Hubbell tapes.

"I want to emphasize that no one on the staff ever intentionally left anything out," he wrote.

Burton may still lose jurisdiction over a portion of the inquiry because Democrats have blocked an effort to give immunity from prosecution to four witnesses whose testimony the chairman has sought.

Burton has said he will transfer the matter to the House Oversight Committee, which has the necessary Republican majority for the required two-thirds vote on granting immunity.

Pub Date: 5/07/98

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