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Though in Jail, Hubbell Never Out of the Loop

May 25, 1998|DAVID WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — "Suzy, this phone is recorded. Ree-Corded. Not only listened to; Ree-Corded."

--Webster L. Hubbell speaking to wife from prison telephone on June 21, 1996.

*

Even after he went to prison, former U.S. Associate Atty. Gen. Webster L. Hubbell remained within the orbit of the Clinton White House.

That much is clear, based on interviews and tape-recorded phone conversations that Hubbell conducted from prison in 1996 with friends, family members, Clinton administration officials and others.

Yet the communications--which aides to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr are examining--have both galvanized and frustrated investigators as they seek evidence that would merit conspiracy or obstruction-of-justice charges against the Clintons or others.

On one hand, there are plenty of words that could suggest the White House was cementing Hubbell's loyalty to the Clintons as investigators were pressing him about aspects of the failed Arkansas real estate venture known as Whitewater and other controversies.

"They're putting all kinds of pressure on me," Hubbell confided to his sister on Nov. 6, 1996. "And I'm clamming up."

On the other hand, the conversations, by themselves, may not prove a conspiracy to ensure Hubbell's silence. Such prosecutions are rare, difficult to establish and typically rely on one of the conspirators admitting guilt and implicating his cohorts. Hubbell has shown no inclination to do so.

Thus, the contacts now represent a tantalizing intrigue--one with particularly important consequences for the Clintons and the outcome of the independent counsel investigation.

Snippets of the recordings have appeared in public accounts recently, igniting partisan fireworks as congressional Democrats accused Republicans of releasing selectively edited transcripts. An investigating committee obtained a total of 150 hours of taped conversations, encompassing hundreds of calls. The panel has withheld most of the recordings on grounds that they are personal or irrelevant to the inquiry.

But the full texts of 49 of Hubbell's prison phone calls, reviewed by The Times, provide the starkest view yet of evidence that continues to fuel Starr's high-stakes investigation of the Clintons.

Do the prison phone recordings depict the words and actions of anxious, guilty conspirators--or merely supportive, if clumsy, friends? A definitive answer may not emerge unless or until interpretations of the conversations are tested at a trial.

"Hubbell knew, as all prisoners do, that his conversations were being taped," said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), a member of the House committee that released the calls. "Whether particular remarks are revealing, or intentionally exculpatory, depends on context and, ultimately, the subjective judgment of the listener."

Those whose voices are recorded or are referred to in the conversations--including the Hubbells and Deputy White House Counsel Bruce R. Lindsey--have declined to characterize what was said or to otherwise comment in any detail.

So for now, the taped conversations must speak for themselves:

Income After Prison

It is well documented that presidential aides helped arrange $700,000 in fees and financial assistance for Hubbell between the time he left the Justice Department in 1994 and entered federal prison in 1995 on tax-evasion and fraud charges.

Prosecutors want to know whether this income was intended to buy Hubbell's silence about the Whitewater-related legal work Hillary Rodham Clinton did while she and Hubbell were partners at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Ark.

But Hubbell's financial needs would continue during and after his imprisonment. This was on his mind the afternoon of Oct. 12, 1996, when he spoke by phone from the prison in Cumberland, Md., with senior White House aide Marsha Scott.

Hubbell: "I've got between five and six more weeks [in prison]. And then, you know, I really do need to start looking for a job."

Scott: "And you will. And we'll find you one."

Hubbell: "Well."

Scott: "That'll happen."

One benefactor with whom the Hubbells sought to retain warm ties was Truman Arnold, a wealthy Texas oil entrepreneur and former Democratic Party official. Arnold, at the behest of then-White House Chief of Staff Thomas "Mack" McLarty, already had helped arrange $90,000 in consulting deals for Hubbell in 1994.

But by the time Hubbell was nearing release, it was known that Starr was investigating the possibility of hush-money payments.

"We have to be very careful about this," Hubbell told his wife during a call Sept. 11, 1996. "We have to be careful and only talk to friends and make sure that it's only our personal friends that are helping. You know what I'm saying."

Suzy Hubbell: "You know, we still have Truman [Arnold]. . . . And he's got somebody on the hook."

On Sept. 18, 1996, Suzy Hubbell explained how she had laid the groundwork for a call by her husband to Arnold.

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