Whitewater, once Byzantine and elusive, suddenly seems simple. At worst, Bill Clinton accepted bribes as governor of Arkansas. At best, he hung around with crooks.
A jury in Little Rock, Ark., decided Tuesday that James and Susan McDougal - the Clintons’ business partners in the Whitewater Development Corp. - had conspired to bilk the federal government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Furthermore, the couple did so in a way that helped bail out a young, cash-strapped Bill Clinton. They invested money in the Whitewater project and agreed to let him keep a 50 percent share of the profits while they absorbed the losses. In exchange, they received access to federal money. The ex-Mrs. McDougal, for instance, received a $300,000 small business investment company loan intended for low-income minority businesses.
Jurors said they didn’t reach any conclusions about the president, but they really did: They rejected Clinton’s testimony on behalf of Susan McDougal. That means they believed David Hale, a former judge who said Clinton had forced him to make the illegal $300,000 loan to Susan McDougal.
The verdict stunned the White House, which had hoped for acquittals which would help shut down inquiries into Whitewater, the White House travel office and other Clinton-era controversies. The president’s spin team even had described the trial as a battle between an admitted liar and convict, Hale, and the president of the United States.
But the administration’s strategy collapsed when the jury sided with the jailbird - and prepared the way for a new series of spicy accusations.
The web of scandals known as Whitewater divides into three pieces.
First come allegations of money for favors.
Did Clinton get sweetheart loans from Union National Bank, the Bank of Cherry Valley, Citizens Bank of Flippin, Twin City Bank and Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan? Did those institutions and their officers benefit from actions taken by or on behalf of then-Gov. Clinton? The Senate Whitewater Committee has turned up possible evidence of a quid pro quo with some of the lenders.
Did the Clintons also throw business to Dan Lasater, one of their most faithful contributors and a man who served time on a cocaine rap? Did the Rose Law Firm, for whom Hillary Rodham Clinton worked, violate conflict-of-interest guidelines by representing the federal government in an action against Madison Guaranty, which Hillary Clinton represented thanks to a retainer from James McDougal? These and other allegations follow a simple theme: money for favors.
The second strand of the Whitewater web involves cover-ups.
At every juncture of this controversy, the Clinton team has manufactured reports that pretend to exonerate the president.
The “Lyons report” threw the press corps off the trail in 1992, but it lost credibility when Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, proved the accounting in the document didn’t add up.
Next came some White House investigations, followed by a Government Accounting Office probe vitiated by the administration’s unwillingness to share records and witnesses. The same problems plagued the most recent inquiry, prepared by the law firm of Pillsbury Madison & Sutro. This study said the federal government shouldn’t pursue any more civil-law claims against Madison Guaranty - but its authors didn’t have a chance to interview at least 25 crucial witnesses.
Bogus investigations aren’t illegal, of course, but obstruction of justice is. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr will give the Senate Whitewater Committee on Friday the FBI fingerprint analysis of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s much-traveled Rose Law Firm billing records. If her prints appear - or heaven forfend, her husband’s - you can count on another month’s worth of hearings and the possibility of indictments on charges of lying to Congress and/or obstructing justice.
This leads to the kicker, the character issue.
Earlier this year, the president leaked word that he had read with rapt interest a book by Yale University Law School professor Steven Carter. The tome, titled “Integrity,” claims that opportunists have corrupted our political system. Too often, Carter says, we admire people who cherish victory at all costs over principle at even a small personal cost.
That describes this White House perfectly. For Bill Clinton, Integrity is a faraway place - an exotic destination, like the South Pole, that he thinks about often but never intends to visit.
Say what you will, but the Little Rock jury slammed the president square in the character - and in the process thumped reporters who had dismissed Whitewater as a nothingburger.
This issue won’t go away until documents stop disappearing and answers come to light.