By George Lardner Jr.
The White House joined House Democrats yesterday in a furious assault on Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), accusing him of doctoring transcripts of former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell's prison phone calls to exclude declarations of innocence about matters still under investigation.
Burton, the chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, shrugged off the accusations, saying that "anyone who's investigated the president has been mercilessly attacked." He said in a statement that he would begin today to release in their entirety the 54 conversations that were excerpted, to show that there were no attempts to doctor or distort their content.
Burton and his staff last week released a 27-page document containing portions of phone conversations Hubbell had with his wife and others. But the excerpts left out a statement by Hubbell that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had "no idea" of billing irregularities at the Little Rock law firm where they both worked. Also deleted was an assertion by Hubbell that he was not being paid hush money to keep him from cooperating with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's Whitewater investigation.
In a letter to Burton yesterday, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the committee's ranking Democrat, complained that the excerpts Burton did make public were released to the press before they were given to the minority. Waxman said the distortions Democrats discovered over the weekend were "unconscionable" and called for an immediate committee meeting to address the situation.
"You have unilaterally subpoenaed these tapes, unilaterally released them, and apparently unilaterally altered the content to suit your purposes," Waxman wrote. "You act, in effect, as if the Committee were your private playground."
President Clinton's senior policy adviser, Rahm Emanuel, stepped up the rhetoric on one of yesterday's talk shows where partisan invective flowed heavily in both directions.
"I don't remember ever, in the history of the Congress, a chairman of a committee altering and doctoring and selectively putting out information that changes both the meaning and content of those tapes," Emanuel said on CNN's "Late Edition." "And there is no doubt that the leadership of the Congress is now going to have to figure out what to do with the chairman and this committee."
Already under heavy attack for having called Clinton "a scumbag," Burton said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he released the tapes because he wanted "to let the American people know that Mr. Hubbell and his wife were under pressure for him not to say certain things because she might lose her job" at the Interior Department.
In one conversation, Burton noted, Hubbell, in prison for embezzlement of nearly $500,000 from his old law firm, tells his wife, Suzanna, in response to her fears of unemployment: "Well, I guess I'll have to roll over one more time."
"That one statement is pretty telling," Burton said on NBC. "We have 150 hours of tape. We tried to condense it down [to less than one hour of excerpts] so that it would be easily understandable." But he said he was willing to make all 150 hours public if Hubbell and the White House consented.
Hubbell's lawyer, John W. Nields, quickly rejected the offer on another television show. "These are confidential, private, protected-by-law conversations," he said on ABC's "This Week." "I want none of it out there. I want none of it talked about. . . . This stuff comes out and everybody in the press starts hyperventilating. . . . It shouldn't be happening. This is very, very wrong."
Nields also disputed Burton's interpretation of a conversation between Nields and Hubbell on Oct. 23, 1996.
At one point, the attorney told Hubbell that "there is some chance that the day after Election Day they will make a move that moots everything. And I don't want to discourage it."
Burton said on "Meet the Press" that this meant "they thought the president might pardon Webb Hubbell right after the election and get him off the hook. Well, the president didn't do that, but the fact of the matter is Mr. Hubbell was expecting that might happen."
Nields said the remarks had "absolutely nothing to do with a pardon" but dealt instead with "immunity granted by the independent counsel, which I was hopeful we would get right after the election and we did."
Telephone conversations of federal prison inmates are routinely taped to try to ensure that no prisoners engage in illegal activities, but they are rarely made public -- usually only in the context of court trials.
Notices of the monitoring are posted on prison phones and some of the excerpts made public by Burton show that Hubbell was aware of the surveillance.
Burton suggested that Hubbell's statements suggesting his own innocence and that of others such as Hillary Clinton were self-serving asides that deserved to be discounted.
"If you listen to the tapes, and I hope you will, not just excerpts," Burton said on CNN, "you'll find that he would let his guard down and say things. And then, all of a sudden, he would try to recant or say something that put a different spin on it. And I think that's one of those cases."
Burton was addressing in particular a March 25, 1996, conversation in which Hubbell and his wife were talking about a counterclaim he was considering against his former law firm and the possibility that it would "open up" allegations against the first lady.
Left out of the Burton version were these remarks by Hubbell: "Hillary's not. Hillary -- the only thing is people say, why didn't she know what was going on? And I wish she's never paid any attention to what was going on at the firm. That's the gospel truth. She just had no idea what was going on. She didn't participate in any of this."
Later yesterday, Burton issued a statement saying he would release the 54 conversations he had excerpted in light of the "baseless claims made by White House operatives." All told, there are about 600 conversations on the 150 hours of recordings subpoenaed by Burton's committee.
Saying he had tried to exclude "anything that might touch on personal or private affairs" from the earlier release, Burton said he believed the new step "will once and for all put the lie to any accusations of 'editing,' 'doctoring,' or 'out of context' quotation."
Burton added that his "initial release of taped material contained transcripts and tapes that Mr. Waxman asked be included because of what he considered their exculpatory nature." Asked about Waxman's angry letter, Burton said on CNN: "I think that's baloney."
In other developments in federal investigations of President Clinton and his associates, Attorney General Janet Reno said she saw no basis for dismissing Starr, a move that critics of the independent counsel suggested because of his new indictment on tax evasion charges of Hubbell, his wife, his Little Rock lawyer and his accountant. Former White House counsel Jack Quinn denounced the move as an obvious "effort to put the squeeze on" Hubbell to get him to talk.
"If anyone out there thinks at this point that Ken Starr is not determined to bring down this president, I don't know where they have been all these last few months," Quinn said on NBC. Former White House counsel Lanny J. Davis said on ABC that he thought the time had come for Reno to consider Starr's dismissal.
Asked if she saw any reason to get rid of Starr, Reno, on "Fox News Sunday," said that "at this point, I have seen no evidence that would justify that action." She added that she did not know Starr very well, "but to date, I've had, I think, very cordial relationships with him."
Reno ducked a question -- prompted by a report in yesterday's New York Times -- about whether Charles LaBella, who is about to resign as head of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force, had urged Reno to seek an independent counsel to investigate both Clinton and Vice President Gore, but was rebuffed by her and other advisers.
LaBella reportedly said this to Republican Sens. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee at a meeting Wednesday night. However, LaBella, in an unusual statement last evening, said that he felt obligated to clarify the matter.
He said that last year he did recommend that Reno appoint an independent counsel "with respect to telephone solicitations made by the President and the Vice President." He said he had "a full opportunity to present my views to the Attorney General, as did others."
"At the end of the process," LaBella said, "I was completely comfortable with her decision not to seek an independent counsel and with the process by which she reached that decision. I have never told anyone anything different."
Since then, he said he has not again recommended appointment of an independent counsel, although Reno regularly asks him "whether I believe the evidence warrants that step and I always give her my candid advice."
Named by Reno late last month as acting U. S. attorney for San Diego, LaBella was to leave this summer, but said yesterday he would remain as task force chief until a replacement is chosen "and an orderly transition can occur." He said he is planning to write a report for Reno and for his successor that will "pull together the many strands of the investigation" and would recommend appointment of an independent counsel if he concluded such a step was warranted.
Having been briefed by LaBella about his intentions, Hatch, for one, predicted yesterday that Reno will wind up asking for another special prosecutor in view of the charges LaBella has bought against Democratic fund-raisers such as Charlie Trie and Johnny Chung and the pressures being brought on them to cooperate.
"There is a prosecutorial squeeze being put on people to tell the truth," Hatch said on Fox. He said he believed that "within the near future, Janet Reno will have no choice but to request the appointment of an independent counsel in the campaign finance thing."
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