By George Lardner Jr. and Juliet Eilperin
Under heavy fire for his release of questionably edited transcripts of former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell's telephone calls from prison, Burton at first told reporters that he would turn over the next step in his inquiry to a committee with a stronger Republican majority.
Half an hour later, however, Burton rushed into the Speaker's Lobby to offer a correction. At the request of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Burton said, his House Government Reform and Oversight Committee would hold a final vote on the immunity issue next week.
The 19 Democrats on Burton's panel, led by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), voted unanimously April 23 against granting the witnesses immunity from prosecution, contending that the investigation had lost credibility, and Waxman said they would do it again if Burton remains in charge.
"What's changed?" Waxman said when asked if the second vote would mirror the first. "If anything's changed, we've seen the chairman acting more irresponsibly in misrepresenting in the transcripts what was in the tapes."
Gingrich, meanwhile, expressed chagrin that the brouhaha over the Hubbell tapes -- key words were sometimes distorted and some claims of innocence cut out in the transcripts -- had taken the spotlight from alleged misdeeds at the Clinton White House.
"There has been a routine process by this White House to avoid the truth, to cover up illegalities, by attacking the person who is seeking the truth," Gingrich told reporters.
He charged that the furor over the release of the tapes was orchestrated by Democrats to distract the public from comments on the recordings suggesting that Hubbell and his wife were under White House pressure to protect first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
According to sources close to the Burton inquiry, however, there was strenuous opposition from the committee's chief counsel, former U.S. attorney Richard D. Bennett, and other Republican staff members to making any of the tapes public.
They lost out, the sources said, to the committee's chief investigator, David Bossie, and other advocates of an aggressive stance toward the White House. "It's almost like a fatal flaw for the chairman," one source said. "He's always protective of Bossie." Editing material out that was favorable to Hubbell and to Hillary Clinton was "a horrendous error in judgment. What's relevant is relevant, whether it's good or bad," this source said.
Bennett and Bossie declined to comment. But a source who favored release said the criticism was "just not accurate" because remarks favorable to Hillary Clinton on another tape were published, and underlined. This source said staff debate is routine, "it's part of the process."
Bennett was named chief counsel last summer after repeated clashes between his predecessor, John P. Rowley III, and Bossie over whether Hubbell should be the focus of the inquiry. Rowley quit, citing Bossie's "unrelenting, self-promoting actions."
A Baltimore lawyer whose one-year retainer expires in September, Bennett is known to have had discussions with staff members for Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, about doing some work for the committee. That panel has a 2 to 1 GOP majority and would deal with the immunized witnesses if, as Gingrich put it last night, the Democrats on Burton's committee "vote next week to obstruct immunity for the second time." The witnesses are being sought as part of an investigation of illegal foreign contributions to the Clinton-Gore reelection effort.
"Henry Waxman can decide where the investigation will occur," Gingrich said after a meeting with Thomas. "He just can't stop the investigation."
Burton released the actual tapes of 43 contested Hubbell conversations Monday, but none yesterday, despite a promise to release nine more.
Asked about reports that Gingrich had not wanted any more made public, the speaker's press secretary, Christina Martin, said Gingrich stated publicly Sunday that a third party should screen the tapes for privacy issues before further releases were made. She said this message was conveyed to Burton's staff, but the tapes were released nonetheless.
After yesterday's weekly leadership meeting, Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) said the leadership is considering whether to take action against Burton's staff, who oversaw the editing of the tapes.
Pryce said Burton "has done a fabulous job hanging in there under the most malicious attacks," but she said "there were some real poor staffing calls made" in the handling of the tapes. "Mistakes were made," she said.
Reporters who have listened to the more than 10 hours of Hubbell's taped conversations have found the process slow going. Most of his conversations with his wife, sister and daughter were personal, dealing with such subjects as movies they'd seen and their distress at being separated.
Culled from 150 hours of tapes that were occasionally difficult to understand, the transcripts put together by Burton's staff were obviously hurried productions. Still, the misstatement of some key words -- "the reality" to "the Riady" on one tape and "cured the problem" to "caused the problem" on another -- are puzzling. "Reality" and "cured" are clearly understandable on the tapes.
Staff writer John Mintz contributed to this report.
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