An embattled Clinton White House - accused by Republicans Tuesday of “abuse of power” in the Whitewater controversy - now faces a renewed FBI investigation into how it obtained security files on prominent Republicans.
Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the new investigation after Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr said he lacked jurisdiction to investigate the White House acquisition of the files compiled by the FBI.
Amid signs that Whitewater and other controversies have taken a toll on Clinton’s re-election campaign, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee opens its own investigation into the FBI files case with a hearing today.
Rep. William Clinger, R-Pa., chairman of the House committee, questioned whether the Clinton administration can investigate itself.
“The onus is on the FBI to prove they can resist political pressure from the White House and Justice Department,” he said through a spokesman.
Reno’s announcement came hours after Republicans on the Senate Whitewater Committee accused first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and other White House officials of covering up various financial transactions in Arkansas.
Committee Democrats, meanwhile, accused the GOP of spinning “partisan conspiracy theories.”
Beyond the Whitewater report and the FBI investigation, President Clinton’s aides are gearing up for imminent action on a host of other potential legal problems, less than six months before Election Day. Those issues include the 1993 firings in the White House travel office and the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, as well as Starr’s continuing criminal inquiry.
A recent public opinion survey showed Clinton’s lead in the presidential race narrowing. A TimeCNN poll last week had Clinton’s leading Republican challenger Bob Dole 49 percent to 43 percent, down from a lead of more than 20 points in recent months.
“The evidence did strongly suggest that Whitewater is being taken more seriously,” said William Schneider, who analyzes polls for CNN.
FBI file scandal
Schneider and other analysts said the FBI file imbroglio could cause further damage. On Friday, the FBI reported that the White House improperly obtained at least 408 files in 1993 and 1994.
FBI general counsel Howard Shapiro, who authored the report, said Starr asked him not to interview White House employees for fear of compromising any future investigation. But the Justice Department said Tuesday that Starr had concluded he has no jurisdiction.
The FBI files in question included that of Billy Dale, whose 1993 dismissal from the travel office continues to draw scrutiny and is one of the subjects of Starr’s inquiry.
Other files belong to former Secretary of State James Baker and Tony Blankley, the press secretary for House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
In a statement last week, FBI Director Louis Freeh said the White House “victimized” his department, but added that “the FBI gave inadequate protection to the privacy interests of persons in FBI files.”
White House officials called the file acquisitions a bureaucratic blunder, committed while trying to update White House access records. The White House has placed Craig Livingstone, head of its personnel office, on paid leave.
White House spokesman Mark Fabiani said that officials welcome any investigation into the FBI files.
“The evidence that’s emerged so far point in the direction of an innocent, though major, bureaucratic blunder,” Fabiani said.
Many of the White House’s latest problems began with the May 28 fraud convictions of James and Susan McDougal, the Clintons’ partners in the failed Whitewater investment. The jury also convicted Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who has announced his resignation.
The independent counsel’s office is currently involved in the trial of two Arkansas bankers charged with illegally funneling money to Clinton’s 1990 gubernatorial campaign. Clinton, who testified by videotape during the trial of McDougals, is scheduled to record testimony for the bankers’ trial on July 7.
By that time, the U.S. Supreme Court will probably have decided whether to weigh in on whether Jones’ harassment lawsuit against the president can proceed. An appeals court has ruled that it can. If the high court agrees to review the decision, the Jones case would be in legal limbo for months.
White House officials said these controversies need to be examined separately and in context. They called the FBI files acquisition a bureaucratic mistake, but said other allegations against the Clintons result from Republican muckraking.
In formally issuing their Whitewater report Tuesday, Senate Republicans suggested that Hillary Clinton and her aides conspired to remove Whitewater and travel office files from the office of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster after he committed suicide.
Committee Republicans also accused Hillary Clinton of hiding her long-subpoenaed billing records for work on behalf of Madison Guaranty, a James McDougal-owned savings and loan. The thrift’s failure cost taxpayers $60 million.
“We have a very troubling and continuing pattern of the abuse of power,” said Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., the committee chairman.
Hillary Clinton denied those allegations in an affidavit submitted to the committee. Her lawyer, David Kendall, submitted a letter Monday calling the GOP report “the politically pre-ordained verdict of a partisan kangaroo court.”
Committee Democrats who authored a separate report charged the Republicans with making unsubstantiated allegations, ignoring some facts and hyping others in order to fit preconceived theories.
“Partisanship has colored the majority’s decisions in conducting the inquiry and in reaching conclusions that are clearly intended for political impact,” said Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat.
Focusing on the files
Numerous Republicans have cited Whitewater, the travel office firings, the FBI files, and the Jones lawsuit as “character issues” they plan to use against the Democratic president.
Dole campaign aides said they believe the FBI files issue, conjuring up images of an administration “enemies list,” could have major political repercussions.
The Dole aides said the files flap is more current and easier to understand than the complex financial dealings involved in Whitewater. Dole himself, who rarely mentions Whitewater on the stump, has been hammering on the subject recently.
“Who knows what this White House will do? How far will they go?” the former Kansas senator said in Savannah, Ga., last week. “It’s not enough, President, to give us an apology. We need an investigation.”
Clinton and aides have apologized for obtaining the files, but said there was no venal intent.
“When all the facts come in, people can make up their own minds,” Fabiani said.
Starr is investigating a number of Whitewater-related events, including the alleged removal of documents from Foster’s office and the fate of Hillary Clinton’s billing records.
His staff is also looking into allegations that aides sought to cover up Hillary Clinton’s role in the 1993 dismissals of Dale and six other travel office employees. He will also review the Senate Whitewater Committee report, in which Republicans assert that some aides committed perjury.
No one knows when Starr will finish his work, but analysts say it could be pivotal in the fall elections.
xxxx THE REPORT Republicans on the committee asserted that the first lady had engaged in a pattern of misconduct and cover-up. They said she had attempted to impede investigations into the Clintons’ Whitewater land dealings and related matters dating back to the 1980s in Arkansas. Democrats on the committee vehemently disputed the report’s findings and said they had not been allowed to participate in its drafting.