Sarbanes questions fairness of impeachment process Md. lawmaker was a star of the Watergate hearings

The Impeachment Hearings

December 11, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who earned national attention for his role in forcing President Richard M. Nixon from office, doesn't think much of the way his successors on the House Judiciary Committee are handling the impeachment drive against President Clinton.

"It's very important to have a fair and thorough process," Sarbanes said in an interview last night. "I have a lot of questions about how balanced and how fair the procedure has been."

Although he would not discuss the merits of the charges against Clinton, Sarbanes said that some committee Republicans are not seriously weighing the case made on the president's behalf by House Democrats or witnesses sent by the White House.

"You have people there who have made their judgments before they had heard the full case," Sarbanes said. "Some had made their minds up before it started. Others had made judgments before they had heard the presentations of the representatives of the president.

"This is a very grave and serious undertaking, and it needs to be treated as such," he said. "That means you don't treat it as a political exercise."

Prudence is a favored Sarbanes trait. The 65-year-old lawmaker's well-known reserve and scholarly manner often mask his unwavering liberal loyalties. If impeached, Clinton would be tried in the Senate, where Sarbanes would be a juror.

That role would return him to familiar territory. During the Watergate scandal, Sarbanes was a Baltimore congressman and junior member of the Judiciary Committee, which was deciding whether to approve articles of impeachment against Nixon. Nixon was accused of multiple abuses of power, including the use of government agencies to harass political enemies and to interfere with the FBI investigation of the break-in at the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

During the summer of 1974, Sarbanes was chosen to introduce the first article of impeachment against Nixon by then-House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino, a New Jersey Democrat. Sarbanes was not its primary author, but the proposed article was quickly dubbed the "Sarbanes substitute," and as the nation watched the unfolding constitutional drama, he became, for a time, an unlikely television star.

"He's a very good point man," a Rodino aide said of Sarbanes at the time. "He's bright; he's articulate; he handles himself well." Two years later, Sarbanes defeated Sen. J. Glenn Beall, a conservative Republican, to claim the office he now has held for more than two decades.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who is guiding the Clinton impeachment hearings as the panel's current chairman, has repeatedly invoked Rodino and the Watergate precedent in justifying his decisions.

But Sarbanes doesn't believe the two proceedings are very similar. Even as White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff was making Clinton's case to the committee Wednesday, Republicans released draft articles of impeachment -- "after having given careful consideration to what he had to say, I take it," the senator said wryly.

Sarbanes also criticized the decision by Hyde's committee to release documents filed by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr with explicit descriptions of sexual encounters between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. And he questioned the open-mindedness of committee Republicans who made strong assertions at the outset of the hearings that Clinton's efforts to cover up his relationship with Lewinsky constituted impeachable offenses.

Democrats offered equally early opinions that Clinton's acts were not impeachable.

Such statements show the partisan nature of the proceedings, Sarbanes said.

"That's not the type of process one ought to try to follow, and we certainly did it differently 24 years ago," Sarbanes said. "We bent over backward to try to be fair to the Republican minority in the Congress and also to the president."

The Watergate hearings relied on investigations by special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski, but involved months of additional hearings and the testimony of witnesses from the Nixon White House and the president's 1972 campaign committee.

Hyde's committee merely passed along the allegations presented in Starr's report, Sarbanes said.

"We didn't take something that had been predigested and simply digest it as though [the offenses it alleges] had been committed," Sarbanes said.

Sarbanes has always advocated the power of government to do good. During the Nixon crisis, Sarbanes argued that public officials must guard their integrity in order to command the respect of the citizens they serve.

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