Whitewater circus hits town

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The Independent Online
Ordinary Americans may be bored stiff with it. Not a shred of wrongdoing has been proven against the man at the middle of it. But this week Whitewater rides again in Congress, and President Bill Clinton's White House is braced for trouble.

Almost from the very moment he took office two-and-a-half years ago, the affair that draws its name from an ill-fated Arkansas property investment in the late 1970s has dogged the President. For 18 months it has kept two special prosecutors and dozens of support lawyers busy, both in Little Rock and Washington, and fuelled one round of ill-tempered but unilluminating hearings on Capitol Hill last summer.

Now the Republicans are in control of Congress, and the new hearings before a special Senate panel, chaired by the arch-Clinton-hater Alfonse D'Amato of New York, open tomorrow.They are an exercise to discredit Mr Clinton, lasting to the start of the 1996 primary season.

And, of that limited political goal at least, there is every chance of success. Another potentially explosive session starts this week on the bungled 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, in which 80 people died. Washington will thus be treated to the spectacle of past and present senior administration officials, notably the former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum and the the ex-associate attorney-general Webster Hubbell, scurrying from one grilling to another.

But the emergence of new facts, especially on Whitewater, would be a quite unexpected bonus. Despite the theorisings of conspiracy addicts, and the dogged labours of Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor, the prospect of Mr Clinton being directly implicated in the affair seem more remote than ever.

The central allegation against the President, that he helped to prop up the insolvent Madison Guaranty savings bank in return for Madison money to finance his gubernatorial election campaigns in Arkansas (possibly channelled through the Whitewater venture) remains no more than a suspicion.

James McDougal, a Clinton partner in Whitewater and owner of Madison until it went under in 1989, is a pathetic, semi-destitute figure who refuses to co-operate with prosecutors. Mr Starr has secured plea bargains with other peripheral figures, including Mr Hubbell, given a 21-month jail term for bilking the Rose Law Firm, in which Hillary Rodham Clinton was once a partner, out of $450,000 (pounds 280,000) in fraudulent expense claims. Mr Clinton's successor as Governor, Jim Guy Tucker, meanwhile, has been indicted on charges of fraud, which he denies.

But to all outward signs, no witness has produced solid evidence against either the President or his wife on the matter of Whitewater-Madison Guaranty. That leaves the Vincent Foster affair. Foster, the deputy White House counsel and close friend and confidant of both Clintons, committed suicide in July 1993. His death has entered the pantheon of great American conspiracies and will be a main focus of Mr D'Amato's probing.

At immediate issue will be whether top White House aides, including Mr Nussbaum and Mrs Clinton's chief of staff, Maggie Williams, improperly searched for and removed documents after his death, before Mr Foster's office could be examined by police. Some documents are alleged to have concerned Whitewater.

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