Whitewater probe ends, but repercussions may not

The exoneration helps Hillary Clinton in her Senate race, but disbarment could still be ahead for president.

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Having found insufficient evidence to charge the Clintons, the Office of the Independent Counsel yesterday closed the book on its investigation of a land deal whose name will become a legend of presidential history: Whitewater.

After six years of probing, special prosecutors could not find evidence that the president, and perhaps more important, his Senate-candidate wife, committed any crime in a real-estate development in which the Clintons lost money, and the country lost interest. The finding follows earlier conclusions this year that the White House did not act illegally in either the 1993 firings of Travel Office employees or in the case of FBI files that turned up in the White House.

"Closing out this chapter is a welcome ending, since no one is being charged and people are being exonerated. That's a good thing for the country," says former special prosecutor Joseph Di Genova.

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It's a good thing for the campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton as well, since she figured prominently in this triad of cases, analysts add.

Of course, there still remains a sub-investigation that stems from Whitewater. That's the one about alleged presidential lying in the Monica Lewinsky case.

While Bill Clinton has paid a political price for Whitewater and its attendant investigations in the form of a historic impeachment, and a personal price in terms of his strained family life, there could yet be legal consequences. He may well lose his law license. Far more significantly, he may be indicted for perjury or obstruction of justice in the Lewinsky matter once he leaves office.

Independent Counsel Robert Ray - the successor to Kenneth Starr - says he'll make the indictment decision early next year, though the guess in Washington is that he won't indict Mr. Clinton. Mr. Ray has said he will weigh a possible indictment on the facts, but will also consider the punishment Clinton has already endured - including a fine for contempt of court for lying about Ms. Lewinsky while under oath in the Paula Jones case.

That second point would give Ray cover for letting the president be, say some legal analysts. "He knows his career would be at an end" were he to indict the president, says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University here.

All along, the White House has maintained that the stream of investigations - from Vince Foster's death to Whitewater to charges against members of the Clinton Cabinet - were politically motivated.

"The word 'scandal' has been thrown around here like a clanging teapot for seven years," a defensive president said at a press conference this summer. Whitewater, he said, "was bogus from day one" and so were "a lot of these other so-called scandals."

At a cost of about $50 million, "this is probably the most expensive production of 'Much Ado about Nothing' since Shakespeare," one administration official says.

But the cost is far higher than taxpayer dollars:

The legal war waged by the White House has had the result of restricting the presidency itself, narrowing the circle of people with whom a chief executive can share confidences. Executive privilege no longer extends to the president's White House counsel and other officials, nor to Secret Service agents. And now, due to the Paula Jones case, a sitting president can be slapped with a civil suit.

To fight the accusations, the White House set up a special team in the counsel's office and assigned press and political aides to the group as well. A new book on the impeachment by Washington Post reporter Peter Baker describes a White House in turmoil and a president - despite outward appearances - as "consumed" and "preoccupied" by the Starr investigation.

In the meantime, innocent people were dragged through the legal system and left with high attorney fees. The country, as well, was subjected to a steady drip, and then a barrage, of news on subjects that defied easy comprehension or were too embarrassing for most dinner conversation.

Still, Mr. Turley says the Clintons are far from exonerated, though he admits that the investigations have gone on so long that they're unlikely to have much more political impact.

He says the independent counsel indicted more than a dozen people in the Whitewater case, many of them close associates of the Clintons and many of whom served prison time or paid fines. Ray's report on the Travel Office firings, while failing to bring charges against the first lady, chided the White House for resistance in providing evidence, and turned up "substantial evidence" that Mrs. Clinton had a role in the 1993 firings.

Indeed, former special prosecutor Di Genova says the Clintons and their aides are "partly" responsible for the scandal troubles which overshadowed his presidency.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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