By George Lardner Jr. and John Mintz
The chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee told Democratic critics yesterday that their charges that he doctored transcripts of prison tapes of former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell were "rash" and untrue and the full record will show he was "very fair and even-handed."
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) conceded that remarks portraying first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in a favorable light should have been included in partial transcripts he released last week, but he said other Hubbell remarks supporting her were made public. He said he also left out "a number of incriminating conversations" from the 27 pages of excerpts that have kicked up a storm. Burton yesterday released actual copies of those conversations as well as others taped by prison officials.
But even as Burton defended himself, his archrival on the committee, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), fired back with a fresh list of "alterations and omissions" uncovered by his staff. He said the "selective editing is much greater than I had previously thought."
"There was a systematic effort to mislead the public," Waxman charged in a letter to Burton. "Crucial passages that appear to exonerate Mr. Hubbell and the First Lady have been deleted. The text of other passages has been so heavily paraphrased that the original tape is barely recognizable. In at least one instance, you or your staff apparently simply made up text."
The bitter dispute seems certain to add fuel to Democratic demands that the House investigation of campaign financing abuses in President Clinton's 1996 reelection effort be taken out of Burton's hands. "It's going to make a lot of Republicans uncomfortable to support this guy," said a Democratic leadership aide, who noted that Democrats may try to get the House to vote on the issue.
Burton vowed not to quit. Asked about reports that the Republican leadership would force him to step down, Burton told CNN last evening: "I'm working to get at the bottom of this scandal. I'm not going to change, and I'm not going to back off.
"When you hear the other side squealing like a bunch of pigs, you know you're getting at the truth," Burton added.
Waxman said Burton made "an enormous error in judgment" in releasing partial transcripts of 54 Hubbell conversations to the news media last week and that the distortions coming to light pose a situation "without precedent in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives."
Waxman's allegation that some text had been "made up" dealt with one word in an Oct. 30, 1996, conversation between Hubbell and his lawyer, John W. Nields. Burton's staff evidently thought that Hubbell was making a reference to the Riady banking family of Indonesia, strong supporters of Clinton. What Hubbell actually said was a reference to the "reality" of his being in prison.
Burton made public a copy of this tape and 43 other conversations recorded while Hubbell was serving a federal prison sentence for embezzlement. In a letter to Waxman, Burton said he was releasing the complete tapes of all 54 conversations in question [the final 11 will be made public today] "so that it will become apparent that you are making a mountain out of a molehill."
The Burton committee subpoenaed Hubbell's tapes last year. Last July, the Justice Department produced 295 tapes covering a six-month period, with a cover letter saying: "We understand that the Committee appreciates the sensitivity of these audiotapes and will safeguard them accordingly."
Federal prison officials said yesterday that it has been standard practice since 1985 to tape all inmates' telephone conversations except for "properly placed" calls to their lawyers, which can be arranged on unmonitored phones. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Dan Dunne said most calls are made from prison telephones with engraved plates stating: "All conversations from this telephone are subject to monitoring and use of the telephone constitutes consent to that monitoring."
In the process of winnowing of 150 hours down to less than one, Burton said his staff worked "to edit out hours and hours of personal conversations so that the committee could release only those conversations that have a bearing on our investigation."
"In such a massive undertaking," the Indiana Republican said, "anyone could argue after the fact that this or that passage should have been included or excluded from the final product."
Burton first came under heavy fire over the weekend for leaving out statements by Hubbell that Hillary Clinton had "no idea" of billing irregularities at the Little Rock law firm where they both worked. He also was excoriated for leaving out 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.
Hubbell's hush money disclaimer came in the middle of an exchange that Burton quoted. Last week the committee released these remarks from a Sept. 11, 1996, talk Hubbell had with his wife: "Editorials are all talking about how all this is designed to keep me and Susan [McDougal] quiet. We have to make sure that it's our personal friends that are helping."
In the actual conversation, Waxman said, those two quoted sentences were separated by five sentences that were left out. The excluded portions included the following comments by Hubbell: "[M]ost of the articles are presupposing that I, my silence is being bought. We know that's not true. You know, we're dead solid broke and getting broker."
In his letter to Waxman, Burton said "I don't disagree with the argument" that Hubbell's remarks about Hillary Clinton and their law firm should have been included in last week's transcript, but the chairman said Hubbell was quoted as saying on another day: "What it all boils down to is they can't say she [Hillary Clinton] did anything."
Burton said he has not yet released several tapes because "I wanted to bend over backwards to be fair to Mr. Hubbell." He said they contain more material "that casts Mr. Hubbell and others in a negative light." If Waxman persisted "in making these rash allegations" about selective editing, Burton said he would "be forced to release these additional tapes to the public that prove that just the opposite is true . . . The entire record will reflect that I was very fair and even-handed in respecting the people's right to know."
Waxman urged Burton not to take such a step, saying it would "only make matters worse if you release the purely private conversations on the tapes."
Partisan hostilities over Burton's actions spread to the Senate, where Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) defended Burton while Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) accused him of "outrageous" conduct.
"The White House always viciously attacks anybody that brings out any information they don't like. It's their usual pattern of destruction," Lott said at a news briefing. Burton, he added, is "trying to get at the truth and the White House is trying to block the truth."
At a separate briefing, Daschle said, "The whole matter in the House has become so politicized so as to render virtually the entire investigation useless." He said the tapes incident "again demonstrates the extraordinary abuse and the extraordinary insensitivity" of Burton and other House Republicans in their conduct of the inquiry. Daschle said he never thought Burton should have been put in charge of the probe and joked, "Maybe we need a special prosecutor for Dan Burton."
Staff writers Helen Dewar and Susan Schmidt and special correspondent Amy Joyce contributed to this report.
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