What Bill Knew

WAS THE PRESIDENT of the United States involved in a criminal obstruction of justice--an impeachable offense? That's the question raised by two news stories last week that significantly increased public knowledge about huge payments made to Webster Hubbell by Bill Clinton's corporate cronies in 1994, at a time when Hubbell was under investigation for the crimes that eventually landed him in a federal prison.

Last Thursday's New York Times revealed for the first time that an initial $100,000 payment to Hubbell by Indonesia's Lippo Group came only a few days after a White House meeting between the president and Lippo crown prince James Riady, a Clinton friend and campaign contributor for more than a decade. And Sunday's Washington Post followed up with a story detailing how John Huang, the disgraced Democratic National Committee finance vice chairman, helped facilitate the payment to Hubbell.

If the payment to Hubbell was hush money meant to keep him from cooperating with the first Whitewater independent counsel, Robert Fiske, what was Hubbell supposed to keep quiet about? Well, when Hubbell, Hillary Clinton's former law partner, received the $100,000 payment, he was under subpoena not only for papers relating to the embezzlement and fraud charges on which he was later convicted, but also for documents from the Rose Law Firm that could have shed light on the Clintons' business dealings. These included Hillary's billing records, which were part of a mass of documents on the Clintons' finances that Hubbell at one time had stored in his basement. And those billing records, which magically reappeared in the White House residence two years later, gave the lie to Hillary's sworn denial that she had worked on the infamous Castle Grande real estate scheme for which Susan McDougal and former Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker were later convicted of fraud by a Little Rock jury. Hubbell's father-in-law, Seth Ward, had been involved up to his neck in the Castle Grande fraud.

The Hubbell case links the Whitewater and campaign money scandals. The week of June 21, 1994 was a busy one for James Riady, who had been a Clinton pal ever since he became an executive of the Worthen Bank. (Worthen--a Little Rock institution co-owned by Lippo and the Arkansas conglomerate Stephens, Inc.--provided the 1992 Clinton campaign with a $3 million line of credit that allowed Clinton to finance his primary bid when contributions dried up in the wake of the Gennifer Flowers tempest.) Riady was at the White House for a flurry of meetings every day that week, and saw the president at least twice, according to White House records. John Huang, the ex-Lippo executive whom the Riadys gave a severance bonus of nearly $1 million before sending him off to a Clinton appointment as their man at the Commerce Department, was present at several of the White House meetings with Riady that June, including a June 23 session that Riady had sandwiched in between breakfast and lunch with Hubbell. Just days later came the first Lippo payment to Hubbell.

Bill Clinton has said that Hubbell was his "closest friend." The White House long maintained that no one there knew about the Lippo payoff to Hubbell--until former White House counsels Jane Sherburne and Mark Fabiani resigned after discovering that top presidential aide Bruce Lindsey had been lying when he denied knowing about the payments. Now, according to the Times, at least two other "high-ranking administration officials" knew about them; and when asked if either Clinton was aware of them at the time they were made, their criminal defense lawyer, David Kendall, declined comment. That represents a seismic shift in the presidential position, for until now Clinton has always flatly claimed ignorance of the Lippo cash for Hubbell until he read about it in the press.

Meanwhile, Clinton continues to posture as a supporter of campaign reform--in the occurrence, the McCain/Feingold Bill. But McCain/ Feingold is a fraud for, among other things, it fails to bar soft money payments to state parties. This week's Time disclosed that Chiquita Banana mogul Carl Lindner, previously known as a major Bob Dole supporter, was a bipartisan influence buyer. Shortly after he got then-Trade Representative (and Clinton fundraiser) Mickey Kanter to secure favorable market terms for his bananas in Europe, Lindner contributed half a million dollars to state Democratic parties--a form of sleaze that would still be perfectly legal under McCain/Feingold.

A Fox News poll just out shows that when asked which is more likely, the return of Elvis or genuine campaign finance reform, Americans pick the former by a margin of 17 points (48-31 percent). They're not wrong.

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