Whitewater indictments for Clintons' partners

The indictments of James and Susan McDougal, Bill and Hillary Clinton's partners in the original Whitewater real-estate venture, could be the clearest sign yet that the 18-month independent investigation of the presidential couple's business dealings in Arkansas is nearing a conclusion.

The 21-count indictment, which includes 11 new charges against Governor Jim Guy Tucker, Mr Clinton's successor in the statehouse in Little Rock, concern dealings during the 1980s by the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan bank. Owned by Mr McDougal, Madison Guaranty failed in 1989 at a cost to taxpayers of up to $60m (pounds 40m).

The McDougals, who are now divorced, and Mr Tucker, then acting as a lawyer for Madison Guaranty, are accused of lying to obtain real estate loans worth millions of dollars from Madison and using some of the money for their personal benefit. Each of the fraud counts carries a fine of up to $250,000 and a maximum five years in jail.

But a statement from Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel leading the inquiry, said that the indictments charged "no criminal wrongdoing" by the Clintons, who were passive investors in the Whitewater development and whose names are not even mentioned in the long documents. Nor are any transactions involving Whitewater itself covered by the charges.

Taken together, these developments suggest Mr Starr has decided not to pursue one of the most serious allegations against Mr Clinton, that as Governor he pressured a government small-business agency to make a $300,000 loan to Mrs McDougal in 1986, which was then used to prop up the tottering Madison Guaranty. That loan does feature in the indictments, but Mr Clinton has dismissed suggestions that he intervened as "a bunch of bull''.

Under accusation for the second time in two months, Mr Tucker flatly denied the new charges, calling them "totally false," and insisting he would not resign. Mr McDougal, now in poor health and almost penniless, also vowed to fight his battle in court. The charges were "politically motivated", he said.

However, assuming the charges do now come to trial, it is not clear whether the Clintons would be called as witnesses. Nor, even if they are not required to give testimony, is their three-year Whitewater ordeal yet over. Congress may decide to hold further hearings this autumn, and the special grand jury hearing the case in Little Rock has been granted a six-month extension until 23 March next year, meaning that further indictments could be handed down.

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