Top aide embroils Clinton in more Whitewater worry

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The Independent Online
Presidential hopes of a pre-Easter truce on Whitewater have evaporated amid a controversy threatening one of Mr Clinton's closest advisers, this time centred on whether the White House sought to remove an avowedly Republican lawyer from an investigation into the Clintons' business dealings in Arkansas.

The aide is George Stephan opoulos. His offence - if such it is in the convoluted world of Whitewater - is to have expressed fury at the appointment of Jay Stephens, long a critic of the Clintons, to join a federal investigation of Madison Guaranty bank.

Mr Stephanopoulos admits he spoke on 25 February to a senior official and old friend at the Treasury Department which was ultimately responsible for the inquiry, to 'blow off steam' at the 'unfair decision' to appoint Mr Stephens. Less clear, however, is whether Mr Stephanopoulos, who denies impropriety, actually asked for Mr Stephens to be taken off the case. If he did, it could amount to obstruction of justice.

The latest fuss has arisen just when Mr Clinton was counting on a respite from his Whitewater travails, during a break which saw him in Dallas on Saturday as best man at the wedding of his brother Roger, and continues this week in California. Reaction to the President's Whitewater press conference and the Clintons' release of their late 1970s tax returns has been mostly positive. Congress and its small army of Republican tormentors is in recess. But thanks to the front- page story this weekend in the Washington Post, any vacuum for the media has been filled by Mr Stephanopoulos.

Under ordinary circumstances, the White House would have every reason to complain at the involvement of Mr Stephens. He is a partisan former Washington DC federal prosecutor who has been a stern critic of the President and was even tipped as a possible Republican Senate candidate for Virginia. Even Jim Leach, the Iowa congressman leading the Republican assualt on Whitewater, yesterday admitted that the indignation was 'quite natural'.

But the circumstances of Whitewater, with its treacherous, shifting sands, are anything but ordinary. Robert Fiske, the independent counsel, has been investigating separate allegations of obstruction of justice, that the administration tried to stifle criminal proceedings against Madison, the Arkansas savings bank owned by Jim McDougal, the Clintons' business partner in the original Whitewater land venture. Mr Fiske is looking into Mr Stephanopoulos's indiscretion. Cover-up theorists have been offered more ammunition.

Nor does the list of embarrassments for Mr Clinton end there. Harold Ickes, the White House deputy chief of staff, is under investigation by the special counsel for telephone calls to the Treasury which could be construed as improper interference in the affair.

Equally worrying, there is renewed movement on the 'second front' against Mr Clinton - that of his alleged sexual misbehaviour while governor of Arkansas. Paula Jones, a former Arkansas receptionist, is reportedly about to file a lawsuit against the President, claiming he sexually harassed her in a Little Rock hotel in May 1991. Ms Jones's allegations, that Mr Clinton summoned her to his room and asked her to perform oral sex, were made public last month. But they were virtually ignored by the press, which preferred to concentrate on Mr Clinton's financial, rather than sexual activities.

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