Scandal vote nears, end does not

The Senate nears vote on impeachment articles, but other inquiries willtie up Washington politics indefinitely.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Within an hour of the Senate's final impeachment vote, which could come as early as today, President Clinton is expected to address the nation.

The message, billed by aides as one of penitence, will also entreat Washington and the nation to move on to the "people's business," tackling such things as Social Security and education reform. After a year of impeachment trauma, he's likely to get his wish, right?

Probably not.

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Even as the Senate moves toward a historic final vote on Mr. Clinton's future, five independent counsels - including Kenneth Starr - remain hard at work in Washington cubicles. Their probes focus on complicated issues that could still consume volumes of legal briefs and precious Washington political time - issues from the original Whitewater land deal to the alleged lying of a former Cabinet official in an FBI background check.

Despite the wide range of investigations, things could be worse for the White House. Frustration runs deep among some Clinton critics that perhaps the most serious of all the accusations to come president's way - charges linking Democratic campaign contributions to technology transfers to China - didn't earn an independent counsel investigation. "Clinton's greatest crime has to do with the fact that he armed China," says Michael Ledeen, a former Reagan administration official and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

At issue in the technology controversy are executive policies that led to the transfer of rocketry data to the Chinese government from US satellite makers Hughes Electronics and Loral Space & Communications Ltd. The information was believed to have been intercepted as US companies contracted Chinese rockets to lift American satellites into space.

While the matter has been investigated by Congress as well as the Justice Department, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno didn't appoint a special counsel.

"Was it a payoff to the Chinese for illegal contributions?" asks Mr. Ledeen. "Was it a reward to various business sectors for supporting him? Whatever the explanation, it's a national-security catastrophe."

Playing into the White House's hands as well may be scandal fatigue. Other accusations of malfeasance that have warranted independent-counsel investigations show little promise of igniting public interest.

"I don't think people will pay much attention to the other stuff," says political scientist Merle Black at Emory University in Atlanta. "I don't think it makes much difference."

"I don't think people today even know who Smaltz or Espy are," Black says, referring to independent counsel Donald Smaltz's still-active investigation of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. Mr. Espy was recently acquitted of a spate of charges brought by Mr. Smaltz that alleged he accepted gifts and gratuities from industries the agriculture secretary regulated in his official duties.

An estimated $70 million has been spent so far by the seven independent counsels investigating Clinton administration officials. Among those still under way:

*David Barrett. His probe focuses on false statements former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros allegedly made to the FBI during a background check about payments to a former mistress.

*Ralph Lancaster Jr. He is examining Labor Secretary Alexis Herman's involvement in alleged solicitation of illegal campaign contributions for the Clinton administration.

*Carol Elder Bruce. Her probe of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt centers on complicated accusations that he rejected a casino application from a Wisconsin Indian tribe, then lied to Congress about it.

*Kenneth Starr. He is continuing to investigate the arcane Arkansas land deal originating in the 1980s known as Whitewater. Mr. Starr's probe was preceded by another independent counsel, Robert Fisk.

Two other independent counsels wrapped up their work without findings of wrongdoing. (Daniel Pearson's investigation of the late Ron Brown closed after the fatal 1996 plane crash of the former Commerce secretary.)

That so many investigations are still going on is fueling criticism among Democrats and even many Republicans that the independent-counsel statute needs to be jettisoned. Critics point out in particular that the two most serious investigations - that of Starr and Smaltz - have yet to garner a conviction against their principal targets of wrongdoing, though the Starr inquiry did lead to only the second impeachment trial in US history.

"We have cheapened the investigative currency. Every scandal can't be Watergate, but it's hyped as if it is," says defense attorney Stanley Brand, who served as a Democratic counsel in Congress. "They raise public expectations that there have been illegalities. Then two years later it turns out they weren't able to charge anybody."

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