GOP may examine role of Hubbell Impeachment inquiry could include alleged Whitewater cover-up

Starr testifies tomorrow

November 18, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman and David Folkenflik | Jonathan Weisman and David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With impeachment hearings set to begin tomorrow, House Republicans moved yesterday to expand their inquiry to allegations that President Clinton and his allies steered "hush money" to Webster L. Hubbell to buy his silence about the Whitewater land deal.

Judiciary Committee Republicans received fresh ammunition on the matter from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who sent the committee four boxes of evidence related to Hubbell, an old friend of the Clintons and former No. 3 official in the Justice Department.

It was the second time in less than a week that Starr has moved to bolster his accusations that the president lied under oath, obstructed justice and tampered with potential witnesses. Friday, Starr forwarded evidence on allegations that Clinton made an unwanted sexual advance toward Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer, and lied about it under oath.

As with the Willey material, Starr did not say that his Hubbell evidence amounted to an impeachable offense. Instead, the independent counsel said the evidence was related to the White House sex scandal and could help show a pattern of obstruction of justice and witness tampering.

But committee Republicans began considering an expansion of their impeachment inquiry, hoping that the Hubbell matter would move the inquiry away from the sexual realm that has proved politically fruitless for them. Republicans met privately last night to discuss whether to call more witnesses before the committee, including John Huang, a Democratic fund-raiser who funneled $100,000 to Hubbell from the Riady banking family of Indonesia.

"This is just a question of dotting the i's and crossing the t's" on an expanded witness list, a committee spokesman said. "There are certain procedures to follow, certain courtesies to extend."

The move came on a day of furious jockeying for position, as Republicans and Democrats prepared for tomorrow's hearing, which will feature up to two hours of testimony from Starr, the only scheduled witness. House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt complained that Republicans had prepared the hearings without consulting the Democrats and even suggested that Democrats might boycott the hearings.

Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel, accepted an invitation from Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to participate in tomorrow's hearing. But Ruff asked for 90 minutes to cross-examine Starr, not the 30 minutes allotted to the White House.

"In light of the fact that the majority has chosen to call as a witness the person responsible for conducting a wide-ranging, four-year investigation of the president, an investigation that has given rise to serious questions as to its fairness, we submit that anything less than 90 minutes would unfairly constrain our ability to explore the basis for Mr. Starr's testimony," Ruff wrote.

Last night, Hyde rejected that request, Republican committee aides told the Associated Press.

Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a committee Republican, said Democrats have been allotted "more than adequate time" to question Starr.

After weeks on the defensive, the Republicans seemed to regain some confidence yesterday. Committee conservatives have been clamoring to expand the inquiry to matters beyond the Lewinsky affair, saying Americans have made clear they have no desire to impeach the president over his efforts to keep a sexual affair secret.

Allegations of "hush money," especially money channeled from foreign sources connected to the Chinese government, could allow the Republicans to do just that.

"The Democrats want this case to be about sex," said Steve Buyer of Indiana, a committee Republican. "When the case is about obstruction of justice and abuse of power, they lose."

Said Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah, another committee Republican: "A payoff to Webster Hubbell would be one of those gross kinds of obstruction of justice that we need to look at."

Democrats were either furious or dismissive of the effort to expand the focus of the hearings and suggested that Republicans were only digging themselves deeper into a political morass. Republicans had vowed to keep the impeachment inquiry focused on Starr's impeachment report, Democrats said. That report makes no mention of Hubbell.

Moreover, another House committee, led by Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, has spent months investigating the hush money charges and has failed to produce impeachable offenses.

"If the committee thinks that providing a rerun of the failed Dan Burton investigation is the way they should move forward to do this fairly and expeditiously, that's what they'll decide to do," said Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman. "We will deal with that situation when and if it ever comes to pass."

Besides, Democrats said, moving on to other matters will not alter the political dynamic that helped cost the Republicans five House seats in the Nov. 3 elections.

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