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Impeached Ex-Judge Revisits History

Alcee Hastings Rep. Alcee Hastings, left, talks with Abbe Lowell, Democratic Counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, during the House debate December 18. (Ray Lustig — The Post)

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  • By Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, December 28, 1998; Page A8

    Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) knows the look. He has seen it in the mirror. He knows the feeling, that down-in-the-bottom-of-your-gut bad feeling.

    Two weeks ago, he spotted the look again – not in the mirror but in the eyes of President Clinton. The leader of the free world was returning from a peace mission in the Middle East. And the president knew, Hastings recalled, he just knew within the week he would be impeached.

    "I have a sinking feeling today and I had that sinking feeling back then," Hastings said the day before the House of Representatives impeached William Jefferson Clinton, while a television set in his comfortable Capitol Hill office droned on with the talk of impeachment.

    Hastings knows firsthand what it means to endure a trial by the U.S. Senate. He has stood on the Senate floor and declared his innocence, only to be found guilty. He has suffered the indignity of impeachment, only to return.

    Now he offers himself as a resource on the legal arcana and political drama confronting the Clinton White House. He has even written a memo for the House record outlining his 14-month case to illustrate what could be ahead. He estimates that preliminary motions, discovery, testimony and final deliberations in the Clinton case could last up to a year.

    Which is why Hastings chortles at the assertion by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) that Clinton's case could be wrapped up within three weeks. "Hello? I don't think so," Hastings cackled. "Over on Ego Mountain they don't have a clue!"

    Hastings's saga began in 1981, when the popular Miami judge was indicted for conspiring to accept a $150,000 bribe. The case, largely based on circumstantial evidence, charged that Hastings intended to reduce the sentence of two racketeers in return for the cash. Prosecutors said William Borders, a friend of Hastings, was the go-between, and when Borders was caught with a satchel of $100 bills, the case was set.

    Hastings maintains that he was never in on the deal and that Borders made promises to the racketeers he couldn't deliver.

    Two years later, a Miami jury acquitted Hastings. But in 1987, a panel of 11th Circuit Court judges concluded that Hastings lied in his trial and the group urged Congress to impeach him.

    The House did just that, charging Hastings on 17 articles in a case prosecuted by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), one of Clinton's most vocal defenders.

    From the start, Hastings denounced the judicial and congressional proceedings as political revenge against an outspoken African American critic of the Reagan administration. But Conyers, who is black, argued: "A black public official must be held to the same standard any and every other public official is held to."

    Many lawmakers suspected that Hastings was acquitted in the Florida trial because he lied. Others said that even though he was not convicted of a crime, his questionable actions fell short of judicial standards of conduct.

    A decade later, Hastings still remembers minute details of the 14 excruciating months during which he shuttled between his South Florida courtroom and the Hart Office Building on Capitol Hill.

    Although Clinton would be tried by the full 100-member Senate, Hastings's case was heard by a committee of 12 senators. At times they held open hearings, but occasionally the high-security room was locked tight to protect government informants.

    He remembers the frustration of knowing that most senators followed his trial about as closely as he has watched the House impeachment of Clinton on television in the next room. "It was like, 'We don't have time to do what the Constitution says,'‚" he recalled.

    Both in the hearing and later on the Senate floor with Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.‚Va.) presiding, Hastings spoke in his own defense. "I am not guilty of having committed any crime," he said to a full Senate chamber on Oct. 18, 1989. "And that is my defense, was my defense in 1983 and has been and is, and will remain until I die, my defense."

    He also traveled extensively, rallying support in a process he always believed was as much about politics as the law. Prominent black figures such as Al Sharpton and Walter L. Fauntroy, the former congressional delegate for the District of Columbia, lobbied Congress on his behalf.

    In October 1989, the Senate convicted Hastings on eight articles of impeachment, ending his career as a judge. The son of domestic workers who became Florida's first black federal trial judge found himself disgraced, unemployed and deeply in debt, including $13,000 owed to his mother who depleted her Social Security savings to defend her son's good name.

    Hastings recovered with aplomb; in 1992 he won a seat in the very same body that impeached him. Today, as he traverses the underground passageways linking his office to the Capitol, he passes some of the same "brothers" who voted him out of a job. Except these days, they call him "congressman."

    Last year, as part of a larger investigation of the FBI crime lab, the Justice Department found that the agent in his case had falsely testified, offering Hastings a hint of vindication and restoration of his judicial pension.

    Today, at age 62, the dapper man whose only concession to age and a weak heart is the pair of black leather sneakers he wears with his elegant suits, tries to take an academic view of the remarkable proceedings in Congress this year.

    He sees many "super-interesting parallels" between his case and Clinton's: "In my case, they nullified a jury; in this case, they are nullifying an election."

    "What this is all about, more than anything, is to drive Bill Clinton the man out of office, damage the Democratic Party and to hell with how harsh the pain on the country," said Hastings, a fierce partisan who also sees parallels between independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and the Reagan administration's Justice Department.

    In both, he believes lawmakers have been asked to rule on impeachment without seeing the full body of evidence. "And I'm supposed to cast an intelligent vote?" he asked.

    Hastings derides his fellow lawmakers who wear their "masks of hypocrisy," pretending to anguish over his or Clinton's impeachment all the while knowing where they stand.

    "By the time I got to trial, people like Senator [Christopher S.] Bond [R-Mo.] would sleep during the trial," he laughed.

    A handful were more thoughtful, in Hastings's opinion, including Democrats Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Republicans Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) and Arlen Specter (Pa.), who, after leading the Senate inquiry, voted to acquit Hastings in the 1989 trial.

    Despite Hastings's own political resurrection, the Clinton impeachment saga has reopened old wounds for this slight man with the easy smile. "I have more reason than anybody here to be bitter," Hastings said. "There is more irony in this for me than I ever could have imagined. . . . This is not a place in history I chose or relish being in."

    Hastings fears that the Clinton case is a troubling sign of where American politics is heading. "How far are we going to go into the private lives of public figures?" he asked. "I don't know a man who had an extramarital relationship who, if asked under oath, would say, 'Yes, I did.' Not a rich man, poor man, Christian Coalition member or NAACP member."

    He envisions the day in 2000 when a candidate is asked about infidelity, decides to come clean and details four affairs, only to discover he "forgot about that night when you were drunk as hell and your friends took pictures of a woman in her bloomers and you with your shirt off," he said. "Aha! You lied about number five!"

    When Congress returns next week, Hastings will resume the fight, filing legislation to repeal the independent counsel statute. And with his trademark grin and a twinkle in his eye, Hastings offers Clinton a ray of hope: "I sort of came back like gangbusters, didn't I?"

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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