Drip of Ethics Queries Stains the First Family

Whitewater report critical but finds no illegal acts

To White House officials, dealing with Whitewater must seem like working on a leaky old roof. You spend hours fixing the drip in the dining room - and right when you think it's plugged another crack opens up and water drizzles onto the parlor piano.

The Clinton team's flow of ethics problems just won't go away. And things will get even worse this week, as far as the Oval Office is concerned.

The Senate Whitewater Committee is set to issue a final report highly critical of administration actions, while Whitewater prosecutors begin a new trial of ex-Clinton associates in Little Rock and a House panel begins asking how and why FBI background files ended up in White House hands.

As yet Whitewater-related investigations have produced no credible, specific evidence of illegal actions on the part of the president or the first lady, say legal experts. But they have turned up instances of questionable or suspicious behavior that may bear further clarification and are likely to keep the word "Whitewater" in headlines for months to come.

"You've got a lot of little suspicious items, so I can understand everybody's unwillingness to let it go away," says Susan Fain, a law professor at American University in Washington who has followed Whitewater developments closely. "But in none of these areas do we have real evidence of wrongdoing."

If nothing else, Senate panel chairman Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York and independent counsel Kenneth Starr have succeeded in expanding the scope of Whitewater investigations over the past 13 months. What began as a look at the actions of the Clintons regarding their failed Whitewater land investment in Arkansas has branched out into probes of everything from the campaign finances of Clinton's 1990 gubernatorial race to the events surrounding White House aide Vincent Foster's suicide.

The combination of Senator D'Amato's more political Whitewater committee with Starr's grinding thoroughness has presented the White House with a formidable challenge. On the one hand, the Senate panel has jabbed at the administration with embarrassing testimony that, among other things, has directly contradicted Hillary Rodham Clinton's recollection of some key events. Meanwhile, Starr's inquiry has loomed in the background as a more serious threat. The convictions his prosecutors won two weeks ago of Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker (D) and former Clinton associates Jim and Susan McDougal were surely no cause for rejoicing in White House offices.

Now, a year after it began, D'Amato's Whitewater committee is disbanding. But controversy over its final report, to be released this week, will likely roil Washington for some time.

At time of writing the final report's wording was not set. But GOP staffers want to include some scathing conclusions. Among them: that Mrs. Clinton took a hand in curbing investigation into Foster's death to hide potentially embarrassing or incriminating papers; and that a number of White House officials, including Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff Margaret Williams, should be investigated for possible perjury.

The White House, for its part, reacted furiously to reports of these charges. Clinton counsel Jane Sherburne said they were "mind-boggling," considering that Senate GOP investigators did not bother to directly ask Mrs. Clinton about her role in an alleged Foster coverup.

It's far from proved that Mrs. Clinton did anything seriously wrong, some experts say. But the Whitewater spotlight now seems to be focusing on her instead of the president. And she has not yet adequately addressed such questions as how her long-sought billing records from the Rose law firm suddenly appeared in a White House workroom.

"It's not the case that D'Amato has uncovered nothing. The initial burden of finding puffs of smoke that would justify pursuing has been done," says Professor Fain.

Meanwhile, Starr is gradually working his way up a ladder of those involved in Whitewater charges, rather than starting at the top. With its first convictions in hand, Starr's office starts its next trial today, charging that a pair of small-town Arkansas bankers, Herby Branscum Jr. and Robert M. Hill, illegally funneled company money into Bill Clinton's 1990 race for governor.

The stakes aren't as high, nor the characters as colorful, in this second Little Rock, Ark., trial. As in the first trial, President Clinton's own conduct isn't directly at issue. But his name is likely to be mentioned more often than in the McDougal-Tucker proceedings, as he appointed Branscum to the state Highway Commission after winning the governorship. And Starr's gradual accumulation of evidence may yet lead to some in the White House.

"This is a standard prosecutor's method. You go after the small fish first," says Paul Rothstein, a Georgetown University law professor. "It gives people lower down an incentive to talk about those higher up."

For his part, Professor Rothstein agrees that as yet he's seen no hard evidence of criminality in the White House turned up by any Whitewater probe. A lot of sleazy activity may have been revealed, he says, "but this is perhaps more significant for what it says about the road to power generally than what it says about this particular group of people."

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