MIAMI — When members of Congress begin the impeachment inquiry into President Clinton's conduct next month, no one will be able to appreciate the gravity of the occasion quite like Rep. Alcee Hastings.
The Florida Democrat is the only person now in Congress to have experienced the searing heat of an impeachment process himself. In 1989, he was stripped of his federal judgeship on grounds of bribery and perjury. Three years later, he was elected to a newly drawn, heavily minority district in Fort Lauderdale.
Now the impeachment veteran, whose wide grin matches his flashy double-breasted suits, is using his knowledge of the removal process to divert congressional attention from the president's alleged abuses of power to what he sees as gross prosecutorial misconduct by independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
"As I watch this process, I feel as helpless as I did when it was happening to me," said Representative Hastings, speaking recently at a University of Miami forum. "Only this time, the treatment is more unfair. The politics are very funky."
A predictable tirade by a man who has been burned by the impeachment process? Maybe. But he's also an authoritative voice in a growing chorus of Democratic lawmakers who are arguing that Mr. Starr's conduct deserves to be scrutinized under an impeachment process, as well.
In recent weeks, Hastings sent a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno requesting that she investigate Starr; and he and Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) of Rhode Island have proposed a resolution calling for an inquiry into impeaching the independent counsel.
While few believe his efforts pose any real danger for Starr, Hastings has little to lose. He is running unopposed this year for his fourth term, and he is viewed as a hero by the black community for doggedly fighting the charges against him. He waxes eloquent on the dangers of a runaway impeachment process and urges caution for his fellow members of Congress as they proceed on charges against Mr. Clinton.
"I think he has something unique he can offer, especially as a congressman," says Alan Baron, the former special impeachment counsel for the Judiciary Committee, who prosecuted Hastings. "He is one of the few people that has been on the receiving end of this, and he can appreciate what is happening."
THE ousted judge-turned-congressman draws parallels between Clinton's predicament and his own. He believes members of Congress, who have been unable to access all the evidence available to the House Judiciary Committee, must rely on reports from Starr. During his own impeachment hearing, Hastings says, members were forced to vote with only evidence provided by a panel of federal judges.
"I couldn't believe it," Hastings says. "These people were taking away a part of my life, and they weren't getting all of the evidence. It's no different now."
Hastings had not been convicted of a crime as the impeachment process began. The same is true for Clinton today.
Hastings, an African-American appointed to the federal bench in 1979 by President Carter, was charged two years later with conspiracy to accept a $150,000 bribe in a case he presided over in Miami. Though a jury acquitted him in 1983, a panel of federal judges reopened the case four years later and accused him of both the original crime and lying about it under oath.
The House voted 413 to 3 to impeach him in 1988. Hastings maintained his innocence and argued to no avail that he was facing double jeopardy. The Senate ultimately voted 69 to 26 to convict him and remove him from the bench. He is one of only seven officials in US history to be removed from office by the Senate.
Last year, Hastings' claims of innocence were bolstered by a memo uncovered by Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, which showed an FBI agent investigating his case lied as many as 27 times to the judges who accused him of bribery and perjury.
Hastings, however, doesn't plan to give up.
"If they learned anything, they will not hurry," Hastings says. "This should not be a quick process."