Ruff Appointed White House Counsel
By John F. Harris and Bill Miller
In filling one of the White House's most sensitive positions, Clinton turned to a man who has successfully rescued prominent politicians from political and legal peril, including Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), who four year ago was facing a grand jury investigation into his role in an illegally taped telephone call of a political rival.
Ruff will become the fifth occupant of the job under Clinton, taking over from Jack Quinn, the current counsel, at a time when Clinton and the White House face ongoing inquiries into the Whitewater affair, the 1993 firing of the White House travel office staff, the improper collection of FBI files and, recently, the White House's role in helping raise money for the Democratic National Committee. Ruff, a former Watergate special prosecutor and top Justice Department official, brings to his post a keen understanding of Washington and politics, according to lawyers who have worked with him.
But his move to the White House also robs Mayor Marion Barry (D) of his corporation counsel. Since August 1995, Ruff has supervised a staff of more than 200 lawyers handling the legal business of the city, and several legal and government officials yesterday praised him for bringing a measure of order to an office that critics said had been beset by missed deadlines and poor organization. At the White House, Ruff will take over in February an office that likewise has had its problems, including its extraordinary turnover compared with previous administrations.
Quinn is well-regarded within the White House and has been an important political adviser to Clinton. Yet his decision to leave the job, because of what he said was a desire to spend more time with his family and make more money, left Clinton in the now-familiar position of searching to fill a critical post at a pivotal moment.
White House officials said there were initially a dozen or so names under consideration for Quinn's job, and that the president finally chose from three names. Clinton, who was previously acquainted with Ruff but didn't know him well, had a two-hour talk with Ruff before leaving for a year-end vacation, one official said.
In 1993, Ruff was on the verge of being appointed deputy attorney general, but Clinton backed off after learning that Ruff had not paid Social Security taxes for a domestic employee. Since that time, numerous people have taken administration jobs despite similar lapses.
Robb's case is among the best-known Ruff has been involved with in recent years. According to sources familiar with the case, Robb was on the verge of being indicted by a grand jury probe into his office's possession of an illegally recorded tape of a phone call by political rival L. Douglas Wilder. In the end, he wasn't indicted, after Ruff helped arrange a last-minute personal appearance by Robb shortly before the grand jury was to make its decision.
At the time, Ruff was being considered for the earlier administration job, and Wilder urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject him, saying through a spokesman that Ruff had exerted improper influence at the Justice Department to help quash the Robb indictment. Ruff and the Justice Department denied any improper intervention.
The White House counsel does not have to be confirmed, and Wilder, the former Virginia governor, said yesterday that Clinton is entitled to whomever he pleases to represent him in that job.
Among the other clients Ruff has represented in private practice are Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), who came under scrutiny during the 1980s savings and loan scandal involving Charles H. Keating Jr.
As a young man in the 1960s, Ruff traveled on a Ford Foundation grant to Africa, where he contracted a paralyzing disease that now requires him to use a wheelchair. Now 57, Ruff said yesterday he didn't have to think for long when Clinton offered him the counsel job.
"Lawyers get to represent lots of clients in their careers" but few as interesting as a president or White House staff, Ruff said, adding that the counsel's office takes cases "as exciting and varied as any private practice."
The White House counsel requires an acute sense of how politics and law intersect in Washington. Clinton's first counsel, Bernard Nussbaum, failed in the eyes of many critics because he responded like a combative and secretive criminal defense lawyer to situations that called for a more delicate, image-conscious approach. Nussbaum was followed in quick succession by Lloyd Cutler, Abner J. Mikva and Quinn.
Colleagues said Ruff's long Washington experience should give him the depth he needs. But more polish doesn't necessarily mean more openness.
Quinn said he believed one of his important jobs was protecting presidential power, including the assertion of the so-called executive privilege doctrine to deny information to Congress and the public in some instances. He said he expected Ruff to be a "tough-minded, strong lawyer . . . able to protect and defend presidential prerogatives."
Several D.C. officials yesterday lavished praise on Ruff and said he would be missed as corporation counsel.
"From a local perspective, his departure is a huge, I think inestimable, loss," said Eric H. Holder Jr., U.S. attorney for the District.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, a Republican appointee who presided over a sexual harassment case involving the D.C. Department of Corrections, has been highly critical of the corporation counsel's office for missing deadlines.
But he called Ruff a "brilliant lawyer" who brought a more rigorous approach to the city's legal office: "He's been in an impossible position and has performed as ably as one could under very trying circumstances."
Staff writers Toni Locy and Nancy Lewis contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company