WASHINGTON — ONE of the mistakes the White House and its allies made in handling the Whitewater brouhaha, says Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York, is to turn the attack on his own ethics.
``If anything gives me zeal, it's the way [Democratic Party Chairman David] Wilhelm has attacked me,'' said the senator at a Monitor breakfast yesterday.
The ranking Republican on the banking committee, Mr. D'Amato is the Senate's leading ball carrier on Whitewater. He also underwent a two-year investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee that ended in 1991 with a rebuke for letting his brother use his office while representing a defense contractor. This is one of many ethical skirmishes D'Amato has been through.
He accuses George Stephanopoulos, a senior Clinton adviser, of sending information to Mr. Wilhelm for a personal attack on the senator. How does he know? His own White House source, says the senator.
His pursuit of the Whitewater issue is driven by what he calls ``prima facie evidence'' of the abuse of power by the White House. It is not driven by ``getting even,'' he says. But the Democratic counterattacks have spurred him on, he says. ``They've played this the wrong way with me.''
D'Amato broke a major part of the Whitewater story in a February hearing when he asked the acting head of the Resolution Trust Corporation, Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, if he had briefed White House officials on the agency's investigation of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan. The Clintons are potential subjects in the investigation. Mr. Altman said he had.
How did he know to ask the question? ``A little birdie,'' explained D'Amato, told him that such meetings may have occurred. He did not want to be more specific, he said, ``because I want the birdie to keep talking.''
D'Amato now believes that he will succeed in getting Whitewater hearings against the wishes of the Democrats. ``Just about all'' his Republican colleagues now support hearings, he says.
One reason not to wait for hearings until independent counsel Robert Fiske Jr. completes his report, says D'Amato, is that the counsel is looking for criminal violations. Some of the potential abuses of power that D'Amato believes Congress should explore may not rise to the level of criminality.