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Whitewater Verdicts Turn Political Tables


WASHINGTON — White House officials struggled Wednesday to insulate President Clinton from the outcome of the first Whitewater trial while Republicans insisted that the resounding guilty verdicts prove their investigation was not motivated by politics.

Indeed, the entire legal and political landscape of the Whitewater controversy seemed to shift suddenly as a result of the convictions Tuesday of Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and Clinton's Whitewater investment partners, James B. McDougal and Susan McDougal, on charges of conspiracy and fraud.

On Wednesday, White House officials tried to distance Clinton from the case by circulating copies of comments from jurors in the trial who said that they did not question the truthfulness of the president's testimony in the case.

White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said that the jurors "examined documentary evidence in the case, and some of those jurors who have spoken publicly have indicated they found the documentary evidence persuasive and they found the president a credible witness."

Clinton spokesman Mark D. Fabiani noted: "The president was not on trial."

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Republicans took the offensive. Michael Chertoff, GOP counsel to the Senate's Whitewater inquiry, declared that the verdict proves "the issues central to our investigation are matters of serious concern, matters of right and wrong, that go beyond partisan politics."

While Whitewater committee attorneys continued to interview witnesses in private, Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) said that the panel's final report on June 17 will raise serious questions about the conduct of the president and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in numerous matters loosely related to their 1970s investment with the McDougals in the Whitewater land development venture.

Wednesday's partisan byplay between congressional Republicans and the White House illustrates how the tables have turned as a result of the verdict. Just a few days ago, Republicans were on the defensive, pressed by allegations that Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and the Senate Whitewater Committee were conducting a political witch hunt.

Now Starr is moving on to his next prosecution, which has a stronger link to Clinton than the McDougal-Tucker loan fraud case did, and the White House is under pressure to contain the potential damage.

While political forces were repositioning, lawyers representing possible Whitewater defendants in Washington and Arkansas also appeared to be reassessing their strategy. Some were even said to be considering seeking plea bargains from Starr to avoid a trial.

"You have some people who are more likely to get scared and give in to the tidal wave of the independent counsel," observed Richard Holiman, a Little Rock, Ark., attorney who has advised some suspects in negotiations with the independent counsel.

In Little Rock, defense attorneys acknowledged that the Tucker-McDougal verdict will focus increased public attention on the upcoming prosecution of Herby Branscum and Robert Hill, who are accused of illegally converting funds from their Perryville, Ark., bank into contributions to Clinton's 1990 gubernatorial campaign.

Lawyers involved in the Whitewater case believe that the Branscum-Hill trial, beginning June 17, could be more embarrassing for the president than the trial just concluded.

Not only has Clinton been subpoenaed to testify, as he did in the previous trial, but Bruce Lindsey, one of the president's closest aides and now associate White House counsel, will have to testify that he received some of the Perryville bank cash in 1990. Lindsey has said that the money was used to finance election day activities.

In addition, D'Amato's aides said that the verdict in the first trial has emboldened the Whitewater chairman to renew his bid to obtain public testimony before the Senate Whitewater Committee of former Little Rock municipal Judge David Hale, who was the star prosecution witness in the Tucker-McDougal trial and is the president's chief accuser in the Whitewater case.

Earlier, Hale, who is already facing a jail term, told the committee that he would invoke his 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination if called to testify. But some committee members are now suggesting that the panel should grant him immunity from further prosecution.

In light of these developments, the White House resolved to say as little as possible about Whitewater in coming days, declining even to respond to charges from Republicans that the trial had demonstrated Clinton's ethical lapses.

"Every day there's not a story in the papers about Whitewater is a good day, and that's the ultimate goal," Fabiani said.

Despite repeated questioning at Wednesday's White House briefings, McCurry would not comment on the case except to say: "I think it's not surprising that some Republicans are attempting to make partisan political gain out of the jury verdict."

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