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McDougal Trial Closes With Verbal Sparring

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  • Coverage of the McDougal Trial

  • Clinton Accused Special Report

  • By Paul Duggan
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, April 8, 1999; Page A5

    LITTLE ROCK, April 7Susan McDougal's latest court battle with lawyers for independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr neared a climax today as prosecutors insisted McDougal must "pay the consequences" for refusing to answer grand jury questions and McDougal's attorney compared Starr's tactics to Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.

    The sometimes angry closing arguments capped a five-week trial in which McDougal sought to make Starr's tactics the issue and prosecutors sought to focus the jury's attention on McDougal's repeated defiance of court orders.

    She is charged with criminal contempt of court and obstruction of justice for her refusal to answer questions in Starr's probe of Whitewater, the failed 1980s land deal in which McDougal and her then-husband were partners with Bill Clinton and his wife.

    McDougal listened quietly in U.S. District Court today as a prosecutor depicted her as a self-serving lawbreaker who withheld information about the Clintons' involvement in the real estate venture because of her personal disdain for Starr and his associates.

    Noting that McDougal defied a federal judge's order in refusing to testify before grand juries in 1996 and again in 1998, prosecutor Julie Myers told the trial jury: "This is not Burger King. The defendant is not entitled to have it her way. . . . And now she must pay the consequences."

    But McDougal's lawyer, Mark Geragos, in his summation, depicted her as a beleaguered victim of an overzealous independent counsel whose office operates like "something you'd expect to see in the Third Reich."

    McDougal, 44, testified that she refused to answer prosecutors questions because Starr's lawyers wanted her to make false allegations of wrongdoing by Clinton.

    She said she feared testifying because if she told the truth -- that she knew of no wrongdoing by Clinton -- then Starr's office, out of vindictiveness, would have charged her with perjury. Prosecutors have denied that allegation, saying they wanted only the truth from McDougal.

    Geragos mocked such assertions. "It's . . . so offensive for them to say with a straight face they wanted to look to see if they could clear the president. How dumb do they think we are?" he asked. The prosecutors' "goal," he said, "is to crush everything between them and President and Mrs. Clinton."

    Myers depicted McDougal as a chronic liar and publicity-seeker and told the jurors they should weigh McDougal's credibility against that of two of Starr's prosecutors, who testified that their only motivation was to obtain truthful testimony.

    "Who is more credible? Two career federal prosecutors versus the defendant who is convicted of four felonies?" Myers asked, referring to her own co-workers on Starr's staff, Ed Jahn and W. Hickman Ewing Jr.

    McDougal "craved the spotlight. She enjoyed the attention. And that was probably her real reason for not testifying, not those lame excuses," Myers told jurors. She said McDougal "wanted to keep information from the government at all costs."

    McDougal has already served 18 months for refusing to answer prosecutors' questions, adamantly defying a court order to testify and remaining behind bars for the maximum term for civil contempt of court. Prosecutors then took the unusual step of filing additional criminal charges against McDougal, believing that she had important information about whether Clinton had testified truthfully about his financial dealings. In her trial now before Judge George Howard Jr., she is accused of one count of obstructing justice, which carries a possible 10-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine, and two counts of criminal contempt of court, punishable by up to $500,000 in fines and a prison term to be decided by the judge if she is convicted.

    Jurors are expected to begin deliberating Thursday after being instructed in the law by Howard -- instructions that will not favor the defense strategy of shifting the jury's attention away from McDougal's defiance by casting Starr's lawyers as villains.

    Howard intends to tell the jury of six men and six women to "please remember that only this defendant, not anyone else, is on trial here," according to the written jury instructions he has issued. Even if McDougal had "sincere beliefs" that she would be charged with perjury if she did not testify of wrongdoing by Clinton, that is not a legally legitimate reason for refusing to answer questions under subpoena, Howard will say.

    The trial is only McDougal's latest run-in with the justice system. Starr's lawyers convicted her of fraud in 1996, resulting in a two-year prison term, from which she was released early because of spinal problems. In Santa Monica, Calif., in a case handled by state prosecutors, she was acquitted last year of charges that she stole $150,000 from conductor Zubin Mehta and his wife.

    In her 1996 fraud trial, McDougal was convicted of four felonies stemming from an illegal $300,000 loan she received in 1986 from a federally backed lending company owned by David Hale, a former Arkansas municipal judge. McDougal's former husband, James B. McDougal, who died last year, also was convicted in that case, as was former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker.

    Clinton, in videotaped testimony in the 1996 trial, said he knew nothing about the $300,000 loan. He also testified that he never received money from the failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, which the McDougals operated. Prosecutors have a $27,600 cashier's check from Madison made out to Clinton, but Clinton did not endorse it and the FBI found no fingerprints on it.

    The president also has said he never received another check obtained by by prosecutors -- a $5,081.32 check dated Aug. 1, 1983, from one of James McDougal's accounts, bearing McDougal's signature and the notation, "Payoff Clinton."

    In her first grand jury appearance, in September 1996, Susan McDougal was asked if Clinton was aware of the illegal $300,000 illegal loan, but she refused to answer. Asked about the $5,081.32 check in her second grand jury appearance, last April, she also would not respond.

    "Mr. Starr should resign," she said to the grand jury. "That's my only answer to you."

    But on the witness stand last week, she said that while watching Clinton's videotaped testimony at her fraud trial 1996, she "did not hear anything untruthful."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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