Ahead, more legal hurdles for the Clintons

Counsel's latest report is benign. But his next ones could trip up the first couple.

For better or worse, they're back.

Washington's Shakespearean scandals of the 1990s - Travelgate, Filegate, and President Clinton's tryst with Monica Lewinksy - return this week with the first of three major findings from the independent counsel's office on White House conduct.

While the president avoided removal from office in his impeachment trial, he may still end up facing an ignoble rendezvous with history: There is a distinct possibility that the independent counsel's findings could lead to Mr. Clinton's indictment after he leaves office - the first ever for an American president.

Moreover, any damaging revelations that emerge from the probes may well impact Hillary Rodham Clinton in her Senate bid and rub off on Vice President Al Gore in his presidential quest.

Initially, though, the news for the White House may be good. The first report, expected to be released this week from independent counsel Robert Ray, who succeeded Kenneth Starr, is believed to exonerate the White House in Filegate - which concerns 900 FBI files, including the dossiers of prominent Republicans, that ended up at the White House.

"Leaks" of the counsel's findings - which are supposed to be sealed for 90 days so that people mentioned in them can respond - attribute the improper gathering of the files to an administrative blunder, not a criminal conspiracy.

The other two findings - one due out in early summer on the travel office firings, and the other on Whitewater in late summer - aren't expected to be so benign for the White House.

Both are likely to focus on the first lady, who will be entering the final stretch of her campaign when the Whitewater report is expected on the Clintons' failed real estate venture in Arkansas. That report deals, among other things, with the issue of how subpoenaed billing records from Mrs. Clinton's former Arkansas law firm, which disappeared for two years, suddenly reappeared in the White House residence.

Still, anything short of an indictment will probably not cause much damage to the Clintons, or the vice president, for that matter. The probes have been under way for five full years, and, with an investigation cost of more than $50 million, much of the public may feel enough has been said. Those who don't won't be voting for the two Democrats anyway, observers say.

"The public is likely to discount it unless something extraordinary happens," says Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute here.

The White House, meanwhile, will do all it can to encourage that view.

"Unless there's something new along the lines of a real smoking gun, this time with the first lady's fingerprints and handprints and footprints all over it,... the Clintons will try to spin this as old news and nothing of substance," says GOP consultant Jay Severin in New York.

Much more serious for Clinton could be an indictment after he leaves office - a move Mr. Ray is reportedly considering. The indictment would relate to the truthfulness of the president's grand-jury testimony in the Monica Lewinsky matter, and whether he pressured Ms. Lewinsky to lie about their relationship in her affidavit in the Paula Jones case.

These were the very issues Congress argued during impeachment, and Americans may wonder why - if these issues have already been decided - the country would need to go through this again.

The short answer, say legal experts, is that was politics and this is the law. The impeachment proceedings were held to determine if Clinton was fit for office. An indictment and trial would determine whether he committed a crime.

Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University here, said it would be hard for Ray not to indict the president, because a federal judge has already found Clinton in contempt of court for giving false testimony in the Jones case. That case was key to Clinton's grand-jury testimony. Indeed, the judge's ruling cost the president $90,000 in fines.

"Regardless of how the public may feel, the Independent Counsel Act guarantees that the president is treated equally with private citizens," Mr. Turley says. "Most perjury cases are weaker than this one - and don't have a federal judge who found a person ... lied and obstructed justice." The point of pursuing the case, he says, is to assure citizens "that no one stands above the law."

But former independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, who handled the Iran-contra investigation of President Ronald Reagan, disagrees that indictment is unavoidable.

"It's a matter of prosecutorial judgment," he says. It could be argued that Clinton has already paid a price by being the first president since 1868 to be impeached, plus the fine. "You could also say the president has been punished, and he's been punished twice," says Mr. Walsh.

Additionally, Clinton may be on the verge of losing his law license - also because of his testimony in the Jones case.

An indictment could plunge America's next president into a political tar pit, as he considers whether to pardon Clinton. After Watergate, President Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon infuriated many.

But presidential historian Henry Graff says the current context is different. Unlike Watergate, the nature of Clinton's misdeeds is perceived by many to be personal, rather than significant crimes against the state. "Clinton is not Nixon in this circumstance," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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