Hubbell's Fall Ignites GOP Whitewater Push

Guilty plea indirectly offers new impetus for congressional hearings

WHITEWATER is bubbling again.

When Webster Hubbell, a close friend of President Clinton, pleaded guilty to fraud charges this week, it energized Republicans eager to reopen Capitol Hill hearings on Whitewater.

Earlier this year, GOP investigators in Congress were thwarted by majority Democrats when they called for wide-ranging hearings on Whitewater, a failed Ozark land development which involved Mr. Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton as investors.

Thrust into the majority by the 1994 elections, Republicans promise new, broader, and more lengthy hearings on Whitewater. Among their targets: possible efforts by Clinton allies at the Justice Department to delay or blunt a criminal inquiry into events surrounding Whitewater.

Mr. Hubbell was associate attorney general at Justice until this year. Although his criminal case is periferal to the main Whitewater inquiries, his admission of guilt and his personal ties to Mr. and Mrs. Clinton have stiffened GOP resolve.

``I think it [Hubbell's plea] underscores our constitutional responsibility to get all of the facts,'' says Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York, who is expected to chair the Senate Banking Committee.

Senator D'Amato and Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa, who is expected to chair the House Banking Committee, both plan Whitewater hearings sometime in mid-1995.

``The congressman intends to proceed methodically and carefully to bring this thing to a conclusion,'' says Mr. Leach's chief of staff, Bill Tate.

Analysts caution, however, that replaying Whitewater on the partisan stage of Capitol Hill also holds political risks for the Republicans as they attempt to unseat Clinton in 1996.

With their sights locked on the White House, Republicans could anger voters by diverting their focus to Whitewater from their ``Contract With America`` legislative promises.

They could be further hurt if they produce no new disclosures, leaving an impression that their hearings were time-wasting political theater.

``Voters will be less likely to tolerate this and reward the Republicans at the polls in 1996,'' says James Pfiffner, a professor of government at George Mason University, in Virgina. ``But, if the Republicans find some smoking gun, then the public will be more likely to see it as...not a partisan, political thing.''

Some Republicans believe that as long as they pursue clear issues that find popular resonance, avoid mud-slinging and grand-standing and - mostly importantly - produce results, they will bolster their White House hopes.

In such a scenario, the earlier Democrat-controlled hearings would be exposed as a ``sham,'' earning the Republicans praise for being ``reasonable and commonsensible,'' says Republican consultant Bill Greener.

``There will inevitably be the charge that this is a witch hunt and an effort to undermine the president,'' says a GOP legislative aide. ``I think it will ring hollow as things come out.''

Mr. Hubbell pleaded guitly on Tuesday in federal court in Little Rock, Ark., to bilking his former law firm and clients, including U.S. government agencies, of more than $390,000 between 1989 and 1990.

It was the more important of the first two criminal cases to emerge from special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's Whitewater investigation. On Monday, a former property appraiser, Robert Palmer, pleaded guilty to falsifying property appraisals at Madison Guaranty, the failed Little Rock savings and loan at the center of the affair.

Aside from its political impact, Hubbell's plea was a personal blow to the Clintons. He is one of their closest friends and Arkansas political collaborators and Mrs. Clinton's former law partner. He was named by Clinton to the Justice Department's No. 3 post, which he later resigned.

Hubbell faced a possible five-year sentence and a $250,000 fine on each of two felony counts of mail fraud and tax evasion. But he will likely receive a much lighter sentence in return for cooperating in Starr's inquiry into Madison's 1989 collapse and related matters.

Madison was owned by James McDougal, who was a partner with the Clintons in Whitewater.

D'Amato wants to re-examine contacts between White House and Treasury Deparment officials regarding a request to the Justice Department by federal regulators for a criminal probe into Madison's collapse.

The request by the Resolution Trust Corp. (RTC) languished at the Justice Department at a time when Hubbell was effectively in charge. Republicans have suggested that there may have been an attempt to bury the request because the Clintons were potential witnesses.

D'Amato also wants to look into the removal of files from the office of former deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster after his 1993 suicide. Before the White House, Mr. Foster worked with Mr. Hubbell and Mrs. Clinton at the Rose Law Firm.

A GOP source says Leach wants to go beyond Washington and examine the Madison collapse and the subsequent RTC probe. He will re-submit a request for documents that the RTC has previously declined, the source says.

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