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Clinton Can’t Afford To Stonewall Further

Suddenly, Whitewater is more than a convoluted real estate deal that few Americans understand. It is more than a conspiratorial obsession used to spice up Republican fund-raising speeches. A jury has decided that it is a case of white-collar bank robbery. A robbery that involved former professional associates of the president of the United States.

It is comparatively easy to prosecute robbers who use guns. It is not so easy to convict thieves who own the bank, whose weapons are falsified accounting documents, labyrinthine loans, phony corporations.

So give prosecutor Kenneth Starr some credit. For months, those whose partisan bias aligns them with President Clinton have been noting that Starr has a partisan bias of his own, against Clinton. As if that made the Whitewater case invalid. Starr did work as solicitor general for Republican President George Bush and was professionally involved in Paula Jones’ sex lawsuit against President Clinton.

But, he also laid out the long, complex trail of documents that led a jury of 12 people to return 24 guilty verdicts against Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker as well as James and Susan McDougal. The charges are serious, involving $3 million in fraudulently obtained loans from federally insured banks.

The jury’s verdict vindicated Starr’s claim that it was a bona fide criminal prosecution in which he was engaged, not just a partisan attack on the president.

In fact, Bill and Hillary Clinton have not been charged with any wrongdoing in the Whitewater case.

But they did create damaging appearances by dragging their feet as various Whitewater investigators subpoenaed information.

Now, they cannot merely talk about disclosure, as if it were just another campaign issue to be discussed and discarded. Clinton’s credibility depends on prompt cooperation and full disclosure if authorities again come knocking on his door, asking about his dealings with the convicted felons who unfortunately number among his political and business cronies.

Maybe it’s small comfort, but certainly it is true, that a number of presidents of both parties have had shadowy associates. Jimmy Carter had Bert Lance. Ronald Reagan had Ed Meese and Rita Lavelle. Richard Nixon had Bebe Rebozo and a cabinet full of plumbers.

Now, Bill Clinton has a similar problem, and it’s going to get worse. Whitewater investigators, spurred by the verdict as well as the impending election, will redouble their efforts. None of us know what, if anything, they will find. But if Clinton sticks with the stonewall strategy, the questions about his character will multiply. Questions can be almost as damaging as answers. Or verdicts.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board