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Clinton Nominee Jeopardized by Health Care Dispute Role

January 27, 1998|RONALD J. OSTROW and EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — President Clinton's failed first-term venture into health care reform again is causing a headache for the administration. More than three years after the reform bid went down in flames, judicial wrath sparked by a related legal battle is jeopardizing Clinton's nominee to a key Justice Department post.

A respected federal judge concluded that a leader of the health care effort misled him in order to keep policy deliberations secret. The judge, ruling in a suit challenging that secrecy, lamented that the Justice Department went along with the deception.

"It seems that some . . . officials never learn that the cover-up can be worse than the underlying conduct," U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth said in assessing the government $285,865 in attorneys' fees and other costs.

Now, GOP congressional leaders are demanding that taxpayers not have to pay the bill. But the cost for Clinton may prove much greater than dollars.

Beth Nolan, nominated by Clinton to head Justice's office of legal counsel, which provides legal advice to the attorney general and the president, had a role as a member of the White House counsel's office in preparing the sworn statement that angered Lamberth.

Clinton nominated Nolan for the Justice job in June, but the Senate Judiciary Committee has yet to schedule a confirmation hearing. A panel aide said it may come up next month, but if it does, several Republican members have vowed to assess Nolan's actions in the controversy over the statement.

"The extraordinary nature of Judge Lamberth's remarks necessitate the highest level of scrutiny," a spokesman for Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) said.

Nolan also is an inviting target because her specialty as associate counsel to the president was ethics and the current White House's ethics are viewed by GOP critics as problematic.

The sworn statement that could derail her nomination was given by Ira Magaziner, a senior Clinton aide and organizer of a working group for the President's Task Force on National Health Care Reform.

In February 1993, a doctors' group challenged the secrecy the administration tried to impose on the task force and its working group.

The administration, in Magaziner's 13-page statement given to the court in March 1993, asserted that the working group was exempt from the open-proceedings law because its members were all "full-time officers or employees" of the government.

Government lawyers later told the judge that Magaziner's statement was drafted under the guidance of Nolan and then-deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster and that it was revised by Foster, Nolan, Magaziner and other White House staff members.

A year after the statement was filed, those suing to open the meetings submitted the names of several hundred individuals they contended were working-group members but not government employees. The government, for the first time, then said it was not relying on the "all-employee" exception to the open-meetings requirement.

Ultimately, the government voluntarily released all the working-group documents to the public, making the lawsuit moot.

But Lamberth directed Eric H. Holder Jr., then U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, to investigate whether Magaziner should be held in criminal contempt of court for possible perjury.

Holder, later promoted to the Justice Department's No. 2 position, said he had found "no credible evidence" that Magaziner had committed a criminal offense. But he also said White House lawyers "appear to have been reluctant to file a supplemental declaration or anything else that might suggest that the [Magaziner] declaration, although accurate when filed, was no longer a complete description of the working-group process."

Justice officials would not let Nolan be interviewed, citing her pending nomination. But Bert Brandenburg, a department spokesman, said Nolan did not draft Magaziner's statement.

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