Cracks in the Teflon

Daniel Ruen

ALL BUT IGNORED in most of the nation's media last week was news of legally seismic proportions that has profoundly shaken the White House. Former Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker has cut a plea-bargain with Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's prosecutors and is now telling them all he knows. This is significant because Tucker was neck-deep in the Castle Grande troubles that are at the heart of Starr's investigation of Jim and Susan McDougal's Madison S&L.

The complicated Castle Grande land deal has always represented the most serious legal jeopardy for the Clintons in the misnamed Whitewater mess. Monies from the deal wound up in the Whitewater account, thus directly benefitting the Clintons; both Hillary and Webster Hubbell, her ex-law partner, did legal work on Castle Grande. It was concern that Webster Hubbell could finger Hillary for her role in Castle Grande that led the White House to orchestrate the lining of Hubbell's pockets with $400,000 in fees for no-show jobs arranged by, among others, Vernon Jordan.

The prosecutors were able to turn Tucker because they had him cold on charges of defrauding the IRS, lying to obtain a federally backed loan, and hiding profits from a multimillion-dollar TV cable scheme. Tucker cut a very sweet deal by agreeing to plead guilty to conspiracy (engaging in a sham bankruptcy to avoid paying income taxes): He got no more jail time and a promise that he wouldn't be retried if his '96 conviction is overturned on appeal.

Tucker's prosecution was being handled by Starr's deputy Hickman Ewing, a tough federal prosecutor with a long history of nailing political corruption. Ewing would never have given Tucker such a lenient plea-bargain unless he'd agreed to sing big-time.

There was more bad news for the White House when Vernon Jordan's lawyer leaked to the Washington Post and the New York Times that Jordan will now admit he kept Bill Clinton informed of his job-hunting efforts for Monica Lewinsky. This renders "inoperative" (to use the old Watergate language) Jordan's earlier public claim that he was helping the young woman solely out of his personal friendship with the president's private secretary, Betty Currie.

Jordan is covering his own derrière by claiming that he didn't know Lewinsky was under subpoena at the time he began his job hunt: His move came just as a Washington Post investigation concluded that Saint Vernon "appears to have helped Lewinsky in a manner and to a degree that he has helped few, if any, others." The new posture shields Jordan from the tough-to-prove charge of "intent to obstruct justice," but places Clinton in greater jeopardy through the admission that the president did know.

Meanwhile, the respected legal reporter Stuart Taylor, who serves as legal analyst for PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, shot holes in the White House's counterattack against Starr when he concluded in his National Journal column that Starr "has done almost everything right" in the Lewinsky case.

"Starr and his staff are not part of a 'vast right-wing conspiracy,' as Hillary Rodham Clinton has charged," wrote Taylor. "Nor is there any evidence...that Starr is seeking to manufacture false evidence to get the president. As for suggestions that Starr has authorized the (illegal) leaks of grand-jury secrets, they seem less credible than the long-ago claims that Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh authorized grand-jury leaks during his six-year Iran-Contra investigation. Starr, who is, like Walsh, fundamentally an honorable man, does not deserve the trashing he has been taking, especially from people desperate to divert attention."

Yet, Taylor at the same time called for Starr's resignation. Why? "Because that single, swift stroke would slash through the Clinton camp's diversionary tactics and put the focus back where it belongs: on whether the president lied and coaxed others to lie. That might be a hard thing for this proud, unfairly smeared man to do. In the short run, it would mean more flak from the Clinton camp. But in the long run, Starr's resignation might well be bad news for Bill Clinton--and might go down in history as an act of courage and patriotism."

I agree.

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