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Clinton Lawyers Pledge 'Vigorous Defense'

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  • By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, December 3, 1998; Page A1

    The White House vowed yesterday to mount a "vigorous defense" of President Clinton that may include calling witnesses before the House Judiciary Committee next week, setting up a public clash just two days before the panel plans to begin voting on articles of impeachment.

    In accepting an invitation to make a presentation, the president's lawyers provoked a new confrontation with committee Republicans by demanding access to secret material from investigations of Clinton's conduct and made clear they intend to again try to turn attention away from the president and toward independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

    The committee yesterday cleared the way for a prompt if frenetic finale to the impeachment drama as rank-and-file House Republicans pressed their leaders for a quick resolution. The panel removed a major obstacle by winning court permission to review Justice Department memos about Clinton fund-raising and then announced a schedule to conclude the inquiry with impeachment votes by the end of next week.

    Behind the scenes on Judiciary, Democratic aides formally opened negotiations with GOP counterparts in a bid to avert impeachment by introducing a censure resolution. But Republicans evinced no interest and focused instead on how to fashion their charges.

    GOP sources said it was "virtually certain" they would divide allegations that Clinton lied under oath about his affair with Lewinsky into two separate articles of impeachment dealing with the president's testimony in the Paula Jones case and before Starr's grand jury. Every committee Republican indicated in discussions this week that they would vote for at least one of those perjury counts, the sources said.

    Outside the panel, House leaders for the first time began making preparations for a lame-duck floor session to consider impeachment before Christmas. During consultations with GOP members yesterday, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) heard many appeals to "wrap it up," as one source put it, and will meet today with Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.), who until now has kept out of impeachment proceedings.

    The scheduling moves suggested that this week's widening of the impeachment inquiry's scope into campaign finance irregularities might not delay its resolution, as some had feared when the committee Republicans added the issue to the mix.

    Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson reversed herself yesterday and allowed two Judiciary lawyers to examine sealed memos detailing the Justice Department investigation of Democratic fund-raising during the 1996 elections. Johnson, who rebuffed such a request on Friday, decided after the panel issued subpoenas for the memos Tuesday that it was "in the public interest that this limited disclosure be made."

    Democrats later said the examination showed the documents were not relevant to the impeachment inquiry. "We trust that this closes a short and unproductive chapter in the history of this very strange proceeding," Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the senior Judiciary Democrat, said after being briefed on the memos. Republicans did not offer an immediate assessment, although they gave no indication that any issues raised in the memos would force them to revise or extend the inquiry schedule they released.

    To keep the information in the memos confidential, Johnson allowed just one committee aide from each party to look at them and forbade them from making copies or taking notes. The aides were instructed to brief only Conyers and Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).

    The documents they reviewed included a Nov. 24, 1997, memo from FBI Director Louis J. Freeh urging Attorney General Janet Reno to seek an independent counsel to investigate Democratic campaign fund-raising. The 27-page memo concluded that there was enough information pointing to possible violations of the law by Clinton and other senior Democrats to trigger the automatic provisions requiring an outside prosecutor.

    Another document reviewed yesterday was a July 16 report by Charles G. LaBella, then the head of the Justice Department campaign finance investigation, and top FBI agent James V. DeSarno also urging an independent counsel. The 98-page report, plus voluminous attachments, was more focused on the evidence collected to date and argued there were sufficient indications of activities coordinated from the White House designed to circumvent campaign spending limits.

    Johnson also allowed disclosure of two August memos by senior Justice officials challenging LaBella's broad conclusions. Reno has refused to seek an independent counsel to look into campaign fund-raising, although she has until Monday to make another determination on that question.

    The White House complained vociferously about the Republican move to include campaign financing in the impeachment inquiry and the president's lawyers insisted that they too should be able to view the Freeh and LaBella memos. In a letter to Hyde agreeing to present a defense before the committee, the White House also demanded access to Starr's evidence about Kathleen E. Willey, who accused Clinton of making an unwelcome sexual advance.

    "It is plain that the scope of the defense must equal the scope of the inquiry," White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff and special counsel Gregory B. Craig wrote. "To prepare adequately and to represent the president on these matters, we must have access to certain core materials."

    The White House decision to present a defense came despite some sentiment that it might have been better to simply refuse to participate on the grounds that the committee has undermined its own process by appearing partisan. "Why get in the way of a suicide mission?" one White House adviser said in explaining the theory.

    But in the end, Ruff and others were determined to take advantage of the opportunity to make Clinton's case.

    One official said the White House was prepared to counter charges about Lewinsky, Willey, campaign finance or anything else the committee tried to investigate: "If they're really sure about opening up the world, we're going to fight them."

    While providing no information about its defense presentation other than to say it "may include calling witnesses," the White House signaled it would use the forum to target Starr, much as it did when he testified earlier this month. Among the materials Ruff and Craig asked to see were documents related to the initial encounter between Starr's prosecutors and Lewinsky, and to Starr's successful request to Reno to investigate the Lewinsky matter.

    Judiciary Committee spokesman Paul McNulty indicated that campaign finance documents would not be turned over to the White House, though he pledged "the committee will continue to be fair to the president."

    "To date, the president's defenders have pled 'no contest' to the substantial body of evidence that confronts them," said McNulty. "Furthermore, if the president's lawyers want to examine Justice Department memos outlining a criminal investigation possibly involving the president and the vice president, they should take that up with Attorney General Reno."

    To shed further light on campaign finance, the committee staff will privately interview LaBella on Friday and possibly Freeh as well. But the panel majority plans no more inquiries into the Willey matter and, according to one official, is "not likely" to follow through with plans to depose deputy White House counsel Bruce R. Lindsey.

    Under the schedule released yesterday, the White House will offer its defense in public session on Tuesday, to be followed by presentations by chief investigators from both parties through Wednesday. The next day the committee would begin discussing and voting on articles of impeachment, with the debate slated to last two or three days.

    The chief Democratic aide, Julian Epstein, officially opened discussions with his GOP counterpart, Thomas E. Mooney, yesterday to try to include a censure proposal as part of the debate. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), in charge of drafting the proposal, said he was optimistic Republicans would allow it to be considered.

    "It would be awkward for the committee to rule out of order a resolution that so clearly reflects the public's feeling," Boucher said.

    But committee Republicans have no interest in censure and are increasingly set on impeachment. As aides draft articles alleging perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power, some GOP lawmakers have indicated they may try to add Clinton's sworn answers to 81 questions from the panel as another impeachable offense because they considered his responses misleading at best.

    No final decisions have been made about how many articles will be presented, aides said, although they plan to offer them for separate votes in an effort to draw more support once the matter reaches the floor. Yet the panel's strongest impeachment advocate, Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), said he favored a single article embracing all Lewinsky-related issues dealing with "subversion of the justice system" and a second article possibly dealing with the lucrative contracts arranged by Clinton associates for former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell after he was targeted in Starr's investigation.

    "Clarity is the key," Barr said. "These need to be drafted in such a way that their importance is self-evident, and that by their language it is made as difficult as possible for a member to vote against it."

    Even as the impeachment process lurched forward, the lawsuit that spawned it finally ended. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday dismissed Paula Jones's appeal in response to an $850,000 out-of-court settlement, marking the formal denouement of the 4 1/2-year legal battle that made Lewinsky a household name around the world.

    Normally such a routine order follows a settlement in a matter of hours or days, but the St. Louis-based judges delayed acting for more than two weeks, stirring some concern among lawyers involved. The appeals panel could have ordered a lower court to consider sanctioning Clinton for providing misleading testimony during the case. In addition, the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch had asked the court to reject the settlement on the grounds that the president may use money from an insurance company or legal defense contributions rather than from his own pocket.

    But the appeals court did neither, closing the legal books on the sexual harassment suit first filed in May 1994.

    Under the terms of the settlement, Clinton has until mid-January to have a check cut to Jones; his lawyers are working to come up with financing that would not come from his own pocket.

    "We're very pleased that it's over," Clinton attorney Robert S. Bennett said yesterday.

    Staff writers Guy Gugliotta and Roberto Suro contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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