Clinton's Roller Coaster Ride on Finance Issues

As the forsythia buds begin to swell in Washington, investigations with the potential to define the Clinton presidency for history are now reaching a critical phase.

For the White House, these developments may mean both good and bad news.

On the one hand, there are some indications that Kenneth W. Starr may not seek an unprecedented indictment of the president or first lady in the Whitewater probe before he steps down as independent counsel Aug. 1. Such action would surely cause a joyful reaction in the Oval Office.

But at the same time, congressional scrutiny of Democratic party fund-raising activities - and what Clinton knew about them, and when he knew it - have gained new momentum in recent days. The flap over campaign cash could yet dash many of Clinton's hopes for his second term.

"It's going to be a much more broad investigation than we thought it would be," said Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana, chair of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, over the weekend.

At first, said Mr. Burton, he and his staff thought their panel's probe of Democratic fund-raising would require interviewing only a few people. Now more than 500 are on their "to speak to" list, claimed the committee chairman. Allegations that Chinese government money may have found its way to Democratic coffers have only made the matter more serious.

"I've asked for documents from 60 different individuals so far. We sent out five subpoenas last week," Burton said.

Still, the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue may well be in a good mood this week - and it's not just the hint of impending spring that's causing it.

Mr. Starr's Feb. 17 announcement that he will step down in August to be dean of Pepperdine Law School has unleashed a burst of D.C. speculation that the Whitewater probe will eventually end without an attempt to seek an indictment against either of the Clintons.

Starr's decision to leave his high-pressure post could well have been made for personal reasons, of course. He indicated as much, saying, "It was an extraordinarily attractive opportunity to go with a university I have come to love."

And the independent prosecutor's office continues to press for evidence in its investigation of the finances surrounding the failed Whitewater land deal. Reportedly Jim McDougal, the president's one-time business partner, has changed his testimony and now says Clinton was involved in an effort to obtain a fraudulent Whitewater loan. Mr. McDougal does have an incentive to deal with prosecutors - he was convicted last year on 18 felony charges and faces sentencing April 14.

By all accounts, the final decision to seek an indictment reaching into the White House - or not - has yet to be made by Whitewater prosecutors. Starr's staff has compiled a detailed legal memo on the pros and cons of such a step, in expectation of a decision being made soon.

But some who know him say it is unlikely Starr would make the decision to proceed against either Clinton and then bolt to California, handing a prosecution with sweeping historical implications to someone else.

Furthermore, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported over the weekend that Starr's office has run four mock trials of the Clintons in front of juries in Washington and Little Rock - and lost all four times.

Starr's office has refused to comment on this report. If true, it points up the fact that there are two elements to Starr's decision as to whether to proceed. One is whether he feels he has enough evidence to win an indictment. The second is whether he thinks he can win conviction.

"The second element really requires an evaluation of how this kind of case plays in front of a jury," pointed out Michael Chertoff, former chief counsel of the Senate Whitewater Committee.

White House officials say a decision to not seek an indictment would be the proper course, because neither the president nor the first lady did anything wrong.

Nor have the flood of accusations about campaign finance wrongdoing contained any hard evidence of Oval Office wrongdoing, say administration spokesmen. "There is no evidence ... that any money, any contributor ever influenced [Clinton's] judgment in what's in the best interest of the American people," says White House counsel Lanny Davis.

But a so-called "China connection," if proved, could be politically explosive. Last week, The Washington Post reported that the FBI is investigating whether China used middlemen to pump money into Clinton's campaign.

On the subject of foreign money, Clinton himself says, "We have to let the investigations proceed."

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