By Michael A. Fletcher and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 6, 2007
The White House responded angrily yesterday to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's statement that President Bush was acting "above the law" in commuting the prison sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, accusing her of hypocrisy because of the pardons issued by her husband on the last day of his presidency.
Yesterday's tough exchange unfolded after Sen. Clinton called in to a morning radio talk show in Iowa to say again that Bush's decision on Monday to wipe away the 30-month prison sentence leveled against the former aide to Vice President Cheney was "clearly an effort to protect the White House" by a White House that holds itself "above the law."
The White House quickly fired back, with Bush spokesman Tony Snow pointedly recalling the flurry of controversial clemency actions taken by Bill Clinton in the closing hours of his presidency in 2001. "I don't know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it," Snow said.
The charges and countercharges came as Libby paid a $250,000 fine yesterday, fulfilling a part of his sentence that the president left in place. A federal judge last month had sentenced Libby to the fine and two years on probation, in addition to the prison term, after his conviction in March for lying to FBI agents and a federal grand jury about his role in a White House leak of the identity of a covert CIA officer, Valerie Plame.
Bush's action has been roundly criticized by Democrats and has prompted House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to announce hearings into the matter. "Well, fine, knock himself out," Snow said of Conyers. "I mean, perfectly happy. And while he's at it, why doesn't he look at January 20th, 2001?"
Clinton pardoned 140 people in the final day of his presidency, stirring a controversy that continues to reverberate. His actions provoked a Republican-led investigation that focused on political donations and ties between pardon recipients and Sen. Clinton's brothers.
Last year, a federal bankruptcy trustee sued her brother Tony Rodham for $107,000 in loans plus interest he had received from a now-bankrupt carnival company called United Shows of America. Its owners, Edgar and Vonna Jo Gregory, sought and won a pardon in 2000 from President Clinton for a 1982 conviction involving improper loans.
A 2002 report by the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee -- then led by Republicans -- concluded that Tony Rodham helped the couple win the pardons at a time when he was employed by their company and urged the Justice Department to examine whether Sen. Clinton knew about the payments he received.
Rodham said then that he was a consultant for the company and that none of the money he received was related to the pardons.
Sen. Clinton's other brother, lawyer Hugh Rodham, separately stirred controversy for collecting a total of $400,000 from one person who received a pardon and another who had a sentence commuted by President Clinton. Hugh Rodham ultimately returned the money. The Clintons denied knowing about the payments when the pardons were granted.
House Republicans also examined a third Clinton presidential pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich in early 2001, after Rich's wife, Denise, donated $70,000 to help Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate election and another large sum to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. Libby represented Rich in his effort to secure a pardon, and in the ensuing controversy, the Clinton White House said it was done at the request of Israeli government officials and had nothing to do with the donations.
During congressional hearings, the Justice Department's career pardon attorney, Roger Adams, testified that the Clinton White House bypassed the department's pardon applications process in trying to rush the Rich pardon through during Bill Clinton's final 24 hours in office. "None of the regular procedures were followed," Adams testified.
Still, the Clintons sought to draw a distinction between Bill Clinton's clemency actions and Bush's decision last week to commute Libby's jail term.
"I think the facts were different. I think there are guidelines for what happens when somebody is convicted," the former president said on WHO Radio in Des Moines. "You've got to understand, this is consistent with their philosophy; they believe that they should be able to do what they want to do, and that the law is a minor obstacle."
The sparring went on as Libby quietly paid his fine in Washington. Although a fund established to finance his defense against the criminal charges raised more than $5 million for his legal fees, his lead attorney, Theodore V. Wells Jr., said yesterday that the $250,000 for the fine came entirely from his client's personal funds. "No monies from his defense fund were used," Wells said.
A copy of the check was posted on the court docket yesterday but removed later in the afternoon by clerks who said that was done in error. It showed the payment was made by a cashier's check drawn Monday from a McLean branch of Bank of America. The check, which covered the fine and a routine $400 fee, was hand-delivered by one of Libby's attorneys yesterday to the clerk's office of U.S. District Court in Washington, according to court officials.
According to Wells, Libby withdrew the funds to pay the fine before he became aware that the president would intervene on Monday to keep him out of prison. He said the timing stemmed from a court hearing in mid-June, during which U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, who presided over Libby's trial, ruled that Libby could not remain free while he pursued appeals of the four felonies on which he was convicted. The same day, the court ordered Libby to pay the fine immediately.
Wells said yesterday that probation officials on Monday set a more precise deadline for paying the fine by yesterday, after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued an opinion upholding the trial judge's ruling that Libby must report to prison while his case was on appeal.
Several lawyers specializing in ethics and campaigns said that a legal defense trust, such as Libby's, does not automatically preclude the use of money it raised to pay a fine in a criminal case, unless the trust was set up with rules to prohibit it.
Libby has not worked at the White House, where he had a $160,000 salary as the top aide to Cheney and an expert on national security matters, since his indictment in October 2005. Since January 2006, he has held a position as a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank focusing on foreign policy, and sources have said his income there has at least matched his White House pay.
Staff writer John Solomon contributed to this report.