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Like-Minded Team of 13 to Present House's Case

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 14, 1999; Page A1

    When Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) learned he would help conduct the impeachment case against President Clinton in the Senate this month, he knew he had to break out the Brown Beast.

    A tattered leather briefcase held together with matching brown duct tape, the bulky bag belonged to Rogan when he brought cases against gang members and shady funeral home directors in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The briefcase was retired when he was first elected to Congress in 1996, but it's been resurrected since Rogan got back into prosecution work in recent days.

    The return of the Brown Beast highlights the transformed duties for Rogan and 12 other House impeachment prosecutors. This relatively homogeneous group of Republicans came to Washington to pass laws and approve budgets, but they now find themselves back at their professional roots, putting on a complex legal case against a team of seasoned attorneys who have spent years battling charges against the president.

    "I know how David feels," said Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another impeachment manager, invoking the biblical battle with Goliath. "We've got some good people, but we're going against some of the most talented legal minds of the country."

    Every one of the House prosecutors worked as a lawyer, but their experience varies widely. Some, such as Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) and Rep. Ed Bryant (R-Tenn.), headed U.S. attorney offices and directed major criminal investigations.

    Others have dealt with more routine cases; Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) handled domestic disputes and the drafting of wills as a sole practitioner in Cincinnati. Some have barely practiced at all, like Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who spent roughly six months as an attorney in the late 1960s before winning a seat in the state assembly. Only three members of the team, Sensenbrenner, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.), have participated in impeachment trials – of federal judges.

    Even so, some observers predict the House managers, as they are officially known, will hold their own in the trial that resumes this afternoon. Alan Baron, who served as special counsel to a bipartisan team of House managers during the Senate impeachment trials of federal judges Alcee L. Hastings and Walter Nixon, noted that House members took their jobs seriously and proved in both cases they could be adept in cross-examination and presenting arguments before a Senate jury.

    "These are bright people, for the most part," observed Baron. "They didn't want to look silly."

    Still, some critics question whether a panel composed entirely of white males, many from the South, reflects the diversity of views and backgrounds necessary to ensure confidence in their case.

    "The notion of 13 white males going over to prosecute a case is something you would not see in the real world," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan (Mass.), a Judiciary Democrat who opposed impeaching the president. "The fact that they're all conservative Republican House members speaks volumes about the case that they have."

    For the most part, the managers tend not to worry about such criticism, serene in their belief that the evidence requires the removal of the president. Indeed, they have delved into the perjury and obstruction-of-justice case against Clinton with vigor.

    Hutchinson has mounted a timeline and charts on the walls of his Longworth Building office; he has even interviewed possible witnesses on his own, in the event the Senate ultimately permits live testimony. Rogan has regularly taken breaks to see his family, only to return to his office and work until 2 a.m. Every one of the managers has had to postpone personal plans and other congressional duties in order to focus on the task before them.

    "It's something I wouldn't wish on anybody," said Chabot, a soft-spoken man who faced a tough reelection fight last fall. "It's been a grueling process."

    While each of the 13 House managers will participate in the three-day opening presentation that begins today, four lawmakers – Bryant, Hutchinson, Rogan and Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) – will take the lead in laying out the facts and questioning witnesses if needed. With the exception of McCollum, who came to the House in 1980, these lawmakers have only recently abandoned practicing law full time. All four have prosecutorial experience, handling murder, drug trafficking and political corruption cases.

    The team reflects a mix of personalities and backgrounds. Bryant, for instance, is known for his quiet, measured demeanor. As U.S. attorney for western Tennessee, Bryant oversaw the prosecution of then-Judge David Lanier for sexually assaulting and harassing women in his courtroom, as well a fraud case against then-Rep. Harold E. Ford (D-Tenn.), who accused prosecutors of racism and was ultimately acquitted.

    Hutchinson, serving as U.S. attorney for western Arkansas, tried several tax protesters in a courtroom that received bomb threats. He later learned that the neo-Nazi group known as the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord had compiled the home address and tax roll numbers for him and his wife during a federal investigation and had made plans to assassinate him.

    Hutchinson, a usually reserved man who displays flashes of anger when questioning uncooperative witnesses in hearings, said he will take care not to offend the "dignity of the United States Senate" during the trial.

    "I think of Senator Byrd sitting out there," he said, referring to the Senate's institutional guardian, Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) "I don't want to have him scowl at what I'm saying."

    Rogan is more voluble, having developed a reputation in the Los Angeles district attorney's office for showing a dramatic flair in the courtroom. Once, he dumped glasses of beer on the ledge of a jury box to demonstrate how much alcohol a drunken driver imbibed before veering onto the sidewalk and killing four people.

    Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Terry Green, who supervised Rogan as a district attorney, said Rogan has always seen himself as invested in a larger mission and took extremely seriously the jobs he has held – including prosecutor, judge and member of Congress. "He has a real reverence and belief in the institutions . . .," Green said.

    McCollum volunteered this week to serve on the team charged with making the factual case against the president, thereby replacing prominent Clinton critic Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.). While McCollum is less controversial than Barr, he is hardly less hostile to the president, having said even before hearings began last fall that Clinton deserved to be impeached if he committed perjury.

    As chairman of the Judiciary Committee's crime subcommittee, McCollum has railed against lax law enforcement. When Democrats tried to steer the impeachment hearings away from the charges against Clinton, he repeatedly returned focus to the allegations outlined by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. McCollum, who served on active duty in the U.S. Navy between 1969 and 1972, spent 23 years as an officer in the Judge Advocate General Corps before retiring from the reserves in 1992. He served as a judge, prosecutor and defense lawyer in the corps, as well as helping soldiers prepare wills in Operation Desert Storm.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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