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MOST OF THE headlines and TV coverage of Bill Clinton's press conference last week highlighted the president's proclamations of a newly minted commitment to campaign finance reform. The hypocrisy of these preachings was underscored by an editorial in the same day's New York Times. The paper, which endorsed Clinton's re-election, denounced the Clinton-led "Beltway sleaze orgy" symbolized by those 103 White House coffees the president held for campaign contributors. These coffees amount to what the Times called the "legalized sale of a controlled substance called political influence.... Call it Renaissance Weekend with dollars."

However, as the Arkansas Democrat- Gazette noted in its report on the press conference, "Of all the questions, only one seemed to rattle him--a question about his old Arkansas friend, Webb Hubbell." They notice these things down in the president's home state because Hubbell, a former Little Rock mayor, formed with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vincent Foster the trio that ran the Rose Law Firm at the time Rose represented the corrupt Madison Guaranty S&L and some of the Madison insiders who benefited from its scams--one of whom was Hubbell's father-in-law, Seth Ward. Ward, it should be remembered, is a central figure in the Castle Grande real estate fraud for which Hubbell and Hillary did the legal work, including the preparation of a forged title document that has since been revealed to have been backdated (one of the documents that survived Hillary's admitted shredding of her files on Castle Grande).

The question about Hubbell was prompted by a story the week before by the Associated Press uncovering yet another White House lie. Here's the background: The Indonesian Lippo Group, which generated some half a million dollars in illegal campaign contributions to Clinton that had to be returned, hired Hubbell for $250,000 after fraud and tax evasion charges forced his resignation as the number three man in the Justice Department, but before his formal indictment by the special prosecutor. Hubbell has consistently refused to say what he did to earn that quarter of a million, leading to questions as to whether it was really hush money designed to encouraged Hubbell to keep his mouth shut about what he knew of illegal doings involving the First Couple.

The AP story contradicted the White House's previous claim that it knew nothing of Lippo's hiring of Hubbell until it appeared in the newspapers, but the AP unearthed a previously unnoted portion of a June 1996 sworn deposition by Bruce Lindsey, the president's closest confidant, in which he admitted having heard of the hiring 16 months before it hit the headlines.

Here's what Clinton said when asked about Hubbell's hiring by Lippo: "We did not know anything about it... I knew nothing about it--no--none of us did--before it happened. I knew nothing about it until I read it in the press." That "none of us" presumably includes Lindsey, who at the time was maneuvering to get Hubbell's wife a $59,000 job at the Interior Department. It is beyond belief that Lindsey could have been so concerned about the Hubbell family's finances and yet not have told their old friend Clinton that the problem had been taken care of.

Lindsey is a serial liar. Not only did he lie about when he knew about Lippo's Hubbell hiring, but two White House counsel--Jane Sherburne and Mark Fabiani--resigned when they learned Lindsey had lied to them about presidential visits from Lippo Group scion James Riady by describing them as "social calls."

Lippo got a lot of value for its money. When Lippo wanted trade sanctions lifted against Indonesia for its union-crushing and child-labor violations of international law, it got it. When Lippo wanted to put John Huang in a top Commerce Department job--where Huang got the highest security clearance and influenced trade policies that benefited Lippo--it got it. When Riady and Huang went together to see Clinton and asked that Huang be transferred to the Democratic National Committee--the better to expand their influence-buying abilities with more illegal cash--Clinton ordered Harold Ickes to have Huang made DNC finance vice-chairman, as documents show. And don't forget that it was Lippo-financed Little Rock restaurateur Charlie Trie who bundled $600,000 in illicit contributions to Clinton's legal defense fund that had to be returned.

Published reports indicate that Lindsey (who, by the way, is in charge of gathering White House documents on fundraising sought by Congressional investigators) will probably be indicted soon on a raft of charges ranging from obstruction of justice to laundering campaign cash. When that happens, the old question will finally make Page One: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

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