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Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.)
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.)
(Ray Lustig/TWP)

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Panel Split Over 'Scumbag' Comment

By Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 1998; Page A06

A bitter dispute has erupted in the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee over Chairman Dan Burton's description of President Clinton as a "scumbag" and his decision to make public audiotapes of former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell's prison telephone conversations.

In a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno released yesterday, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the committee's ranking Democrat, said Burton's plan to release the tapes of Hubbell's phone calls constitutes both an abuse of congressional power and a "reprehensible" invasion of Hubbell's privacy. Waxman asked Reno to object to release of the tapes, which the Justice Department provided to the House panel.

Waxman also circulated a letter to other House members in which he quoted comments Burton (R-Ind.) made last week to the editorial board of the Indianapolis Star. According to the newspaper's account, Burton said: "If I could prove 10 percent of what I believe happened, he'd [Clinton] be gone. This guy's a scumbag. That's why I'm after him."

"Please ask yourself whether this is the attitude and approach toward congressional investigations that the American people have a right to expect," Waxman wrote to his colleagues.

Will Dwyer, chief spokesman for the committee, said Burton would not discuss the dispute with Waxman or his description of Clinton as a "scumbag." Defending that remark, Dwyer said: "The chairman has been quite reserved in his comments about the conduct of those involved in the campaign finance scandal. But in view of the obstruction, hindrance and interference this committee has met -- 89 people fleeing the country or taking the Fifth Amendment, stonewalling of official subpoenas by the White House, frivolous claims of executive privilege -- it's hardly unusual that his frustration might be vented in 'straight talk.' "

Dwyer said the Hubbell recordings have not yet been released publicly but will be "in the course of committee business." He said Burton believed that "the American people should know if senior White House officials conspired to buy Webb Hubbell's silence."

Hubbell, a former law partner of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, is a key figure in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's Whitewater investigation. In 1994, he pleaded guilty to mail fraud and tax evasion in his billing practices as a private lawyer and served a 15-month sentence in federal custody.

Starr is investigating more than $500,000 in payments to Hubbell made by Clinton friends and Democratic Party donors during much of 1994, when he left his Justice Department post. Prosecutors are examining whether Hubbell did any work for the money, including a consulting engagement with the city of Los Angeles, and whether he paid income taxes on his consulting fees. At least part of their inquiry has been focused on whether the funds were intended to buy Hubbell's silence about Hillary Clinton's legal work in Arkansas and other matters relating to the Whitewater investigation.

Last July, responding to a subpoena, the Justice Department gave Burton's committee 295 tapes of Hubbell's prison telephone conversations. In a letter accompanying the tapes, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Fois told Burton, "We understand that the committee appreciates the sensitivity of these audiotapes and will safeguard them accordingly."

The telephone conversations of federal prisoners are routinely tape-recorded for security purposes, but federal law prohibits public release of the tapes' content. The law, however, does not apply to congressional committees.

A Democratic committee aide who has listened to many of the tapes said they include intimate conversations between Hubbell and his wife and friends. "The overwhelming majority is completely unrelated to the investigation" of campaign finance abuses that the panel is conducting, he said.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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