House prosecutors contend they're doing it for history

Team has unpopular task, tries to present it in best possible light

February 05, 1999|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Recognizing that they have little chance of convicting President Clinton, the 13 House Republican prosecutors say they are continuing to press their case with vigor so that future generations cannot conclude that the prosecutors shirked an unpopular task.

"If we walk away from our duty, how do we explain that to history?" Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, the lead prosecutor, asked yesterday. "This is not politically profitable. It's a matter of doing our duty."

Rep. James E. Rogan of California, another prosecutor, said with a degree of pride that from the first day the prosecutors "walked across the Rotunda [to the Senate], we've been able to fulfill our constitutional duty."

"The fact that we had a few roadblocks thrown up against us is not our fault," Rogan said. A full trial, he said, "is what the founders intended. It's what the system entails."

By a 70-30 vote yesterday, the Senate blocked the prosecutors' best shot at infusing their case with a touch of drama -- Monica Lewinsky's live testimony from the well of the Senate.

Some of the prosecutors are casting the best light possible on their setbacks, despite having lost their request for even one live witness after early hopes of calling a dozen or more. The Senate, they pointed out, did vote to allow the use of videotaped testimony from the deposed witnesses, including Lewinsky.

"It went well for us, actually," Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida told reporters, just a few hours after arguing to senators, unsuccessfully, that Lewinsky's live testimony was nearly indispensable to making a strong case for conviction. "We're pleased we get the opportunity to make the presentation."

Four House prosecutors who have played prominent roles in the trial -- Reps. Ed Bryant of Tennessee, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rogan -- will spend the day preparing for the three-hour presentation of evidence they will make tomorrow.

"The House has given us a responsibility," Hutchinson said. "They did not tell us to go over to the Senate and work for a couple of days, throw up our hands, and say, `We can't get the votes.' "

At tomorrow's session, the prosecutors will be able to show clips from the testimony of Lewinsky, Clinton friend Vernon Jordan and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal. They hope to create a convincing narrative of Clinton's efforts to cover up his relationship with Lewinsky.

From the prosecutors' comments on the Senate floor, it appears likely that they will offer Lewinsky's testimony to try to contradict Clinton's sworn account of the import of his conversations with her and others after lawyers for Paula Corbin Jones sought Lewinsky's testimony.

Hutchinson indicated he would argue that Jordan's testimony shows that the president used the high-powered Washington attorney to find Lewinsky a job so she would not reveal her involvement with Clinton.

Blumenthal's concession that Clinton lied to him may be used to help show that the president's misleading statements were part of an effort to destroy Lewinsky's credibility -- a line of argument pursued by Graham.

Graham may also point to Blumenthal's statement to highlight Clinton's testimony to a grand jury in which he seems to say that he had not lied to his friends and aides about the relationship.

"I did not want to mislead my friends," Clinton said under oath on Aug. 17. A bit later in his testimony, Clinton said, "I said to them things that were true about this relationship." Graham has pointed to those statements as an instance of possible perjury.

Though they still complain that they have been unable to put on a full-scale trial, the prosecutors have started to strike a more temperate tone toward the Senate.

"They've treated us nicely," Hyde said yesterday. "I regret there's the implication that there's tension."

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin suggested yesterday that his expectations were already low for what the Senate would allow the prosecutors to do.

"I don't think the Senate is making available the best evidence to itself," Sensenbrenner said. "The historical precedent is also clear that the Senate is in charge of running the trial."

Other prosecutors, seemingly unshackled from the burden of actually persuading two-thirds of the Senate to convict Clinton, have strayed into other areas.

Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah, in interviews with several news organizations in the past few days, ruminated about the sexual ethics of the Clinton administration.

Meanwhile, Rep. George W. Gekas of Pennsylvania, another prosecutor, who is chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees the independent counsel law, said his panel would review the activities of Kenneth W. Starr. A spokeswoman said Gekas was troubled by leaked reports that the independent counsel believed he had authority to indict a sitting president.

Both issues can be viewed only as distractions by the lead House prosecutors, who have tried to maintain a focus on the charges against Clinton and away from his sexual activities or Starr's inquiry.

"We understood this was a David and Goliath approach, particularly in light of public opinion polls," Rogan said last night.

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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