President and Whitewater: What the Fuss Is All About

IT'S the kind of story White House officials wish would simply go away.

But as questions mount about Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton's involvement with an Arkansas real estate investment and a failed savings and loan, the story is only picking up steam - and threatens to stymie the White House's political agenda.

By the weekend, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that some form of special counsel would have to be brought in, either a special prosecutor directly appointed by the attorney general or an independent counsel selected by a three-judge panel. The latter option would be available only after Congress reauthorizes the independent-counsel law, which lapsed in 1992. Congress will take up the matter soon after it reconvenes later this month.

``The longer this goes on, and the more contradictions come out, the greater the public desire for a full accounting,'' says an aide to a House Republican member, speaking on condition of anonymity.

For the general public, the story is already so laden with detail that it defies simple explanation. Here are some of the basic questions surrounding the case:

What is the core allegation?

That money from Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, owned by James McDougal, was diverted to Whitewater Development Company, a real estate venture co-owned by Mr. McDougal and his wife, Susan, and the Clintons. The S&L failed in 1989, and federal thrift investigators say they have unearthed evidence supporting the allegation. The Clintons say they were passive investors and lost almost $69,000 on Whitewater. Is President Clinton accused of any wrongdoing?

Nothing has been proved against him. But investigators have evidence that money from Madison Guaranty was used to repay a $50,000 campaign debt Mr. Clinton had from his 1984 campaign for governor. Clinton denies knowledge of the money. Clinton also rejects suggestions that he used his clout as governor of Arkansas to keep federal and state banking regulators from shutting down Madison, thus driving up the cost of repaying depositors when it did ultimately fail to $47 million.

What events have heightened suspicion about the Clintons' involvement in the venture?

When deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster killed himself in July, chief counsel Bernard Nussbaum removed a Whitewater file from Foster's office before federal investigators could enter the office. This was not necessarily improper, given that the president does have some legitimate attorney-client privileges, says Paul Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown University.

An action by Clinton's personal lawyer, David Kendall, also has raised eyebrows: Mr. Kendall asked the Justice Department to lengthen the list of documents it would seek in its Dec. 23 subpoena on the Whitewater case to shield more documents from public scrutiny. (Papers subpoenaed in a criminal case cannot be released under Freedom of Information Act requests.)

The Clintons' preference for keeping information about Whitewater private has fueled speculation that they have something to hide. What is Hillary Rodham Clinton's role in the affair?

She served as a legal counsel to Madison Guaranty and therefore would have had more reason to know about the thrift's finances than her husband would. Whether she could be held negligent for not spotting, or not stopping, any improprieties by the S&L is open to question. ``The law seems to be evolving,'' Professor Rothstein says.

What options does Attorney General Janet Reno have for bringing in an independent counsel?

She has the authority to appoint a special prosecutor immediately, but has said that she does not want to do so because such a prosecutor would not be totally independent of administration control. She has expressed a preference for waiting for Congress to reauthorize the independent-counsel law. The problem with that, though, is that the statute of limitations on some of the civil aspects of the case expires on March 2. It is doubtful that there would be enough time for Congress to pass an independent-counsel law and for a panel of judges to select such a counsel in time.

Senate minority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas has maintained that Ms. Reno should appoint a special prosecutor herself; last week, he put out a list of lawyers, including some former US attorneys general, whom he says would have the stature to do the job and avoid accusations of politicization. Senator Dole has opposed the independent-counsel law, citing the excessive cost and reach of such counsels. In the worst-case scenario, what laws might the president have broken? Could he be impeached?

Illegalities could include election-law violations, diversion of S&L funds, and bribery. Rothstein stresses that there is no proof the president broke laws or that he had knowledge of financial irregularities at Madison Guaranty.

But in the worst-case scenario for Clinton, in which he is found guilty of criminal offenses, he could conceivably be impeached, Rothstein says. The Constitution is not specific on whether a president can be impeached for an offense committed before he became president, which means Congress could argue that such offenses are impeachable.

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