Witnesses are needed to get at `heart' of case, managers say

List includes Lewinsky, Jordan and Blumenthal

Currie would not be called

January 27, 1999|By Susan Baer and David Folkenflik | Susan Baer and David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In seeking the testimony of Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan and Sidney Blumenthal, the Republican House prosecutors said yesterday that they wanted the Senate to hear from witnesses who represented "the basic heart of the obstruction of justice case" against President Clinton.

The witnesses are necessary "for the Senate to be able to make the ultimate conclusion of what is the truth," said Rep. James E. Rogan of California.

Aside from the unexpected call from the House prosecutors for Clinton himself to give a deposition -- a request the White House was quick to reject -- the pared witness list submitted yesterday presented a major surprise: the absence of Betty Currie, Clinton's secretary, who is central to several obstruction of justice charges against the president.

Currie, for example, retrieved from Lewinsky gifts that Clinton had given the former White House intern. Prosecutors say Currie acted at Clinton's direction.

What's more, Currie testified before the grand jury that the president summoned her to the White House the day after his deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case and led her through leading questions about his activities with Lewinsky.

In defending the Republicans' witness list before the Senate yesterday, Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, one of the House prosecutors, said Currie was not needed as a witness because her previous testimony on such points was "undisputed" by the White House.

"No more witnesses are needed," McCollum said. "The president committed those crimes."

Rogan said House prosecutors were also discouraged from calling Currie because their questioning of her would take too long, especially when combined with depositions from Lewinsky and Jordan.

"Some senators would look at that and say the sheer length of that goes beyond what we wanted," Rogan said. "Did we want to risk putting the three most controversial witnesses on the list and not get any of them?"

The House prosecutors, frustrated by the Senate's growing desire for a speedy trial, expressed dismay that their witness list had to be severely limited to have any chance of passing.

"This was a consensus, although not a happy consensus," Rogan said.

In remarks on the Senate floor yesterday, Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas echoed those sentiments, saying: "The House managers have submitted to the rules of the Senate. We weren't particularly happy about all of them."

The motion for witnesses, to be voted on today, would require Lewinsky, Jordan and Blumenthal to appear at closed-door depositions. The House prosecutors said they hoped the Senate would eventually vote to hear live testimony from the three witnesses.

In further explaining the unexpected makeup of the list, Paul J. McNulty, a spokesman for the House prosecutors, said that, taken together, Jordan and Blumenthal could testify to Clinton's efforts to find Lewinsky a job, to spread the false story that he had not had a physical relationship with Lewinsky and to smear Lewinsky as a "stalker."

McNulty said Currie would be able simply to confirm her testimony that Clinton asked her leading questions about his contacts with Lewinsky, such as, "I was never alone with her, right?"

The White House has not disputed this account. But it says the president was merely trying to refresh his memory rather than to tamper with a potential witness.

On the issue of who initiated the gift retrieval, McNulty said Currie's testimony -- that the retrieval was Lewinsky's idea -- contradicts Lewinsky's testimony that Currie initiated the pickup. House prosecutors have chosen to believe Lewinsky on the matter.

He acknowledged that the quiet and deeply religious Currie might have generated much sympathy as a witness, as she did when she entered the federal courthouse last year, surrounded by a media throng, with a fearful, deer-in-the-headlights look.

On the other hand, Jordan, a powerful Washington insider and superlawyer, is less likely to provoke a protective reaction among senators -- and, perhaps, a television audience.

Similarly, Blumenthal, a White House communications official with a reputation for arrogance, is not as popular a figure on Capitol Hill as is John Podesta, Clinton's chief of staff, who had also been considered as a witness.

"Prosecutors always have to take into account how a witness will be viewed on the stand," McNulty said.

But McNulty denied speculation that Currie might have been struck from the witness list to avoid the specter of a black woman being grilled by white male prosecutors before an all-white, largely male Senate.

On the Senate floor yesterday, House prosecutors argued that Lewinsky was central to their case and was "probably the most important witness."

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