Thursday, September 21, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Clintons cleared on Whitewater after 6 years, $52 million

Seattle Times news services

WASHINGTON - The White water independent counsel concluded yesterday that an investigation that consumed six years and $52 million had found insufficient evidence to charge President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton with criminal wrongdoing.

The anticlimactic conclusion to the inquiry into a 12-year-old Arkansas land deal removed a cloud that had hung over the president almost from the moment he took office. The Whitewater case and its spinoffs helped make Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones famous, tarred a generation of Arkansas politicians, brought Travelgate and Filegate into the Washington political lexicon and cost the Clinton administration much of its moral capital.

The report comes only four months before Clinton's term ends, but may be far more consequential for the first lady, who is in the midst of a Senate election in New York.

"This office determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that either President or Mrs. Clinton knowingly participated in any criminal conduct," concluded Robert Ray, who succeeded Kenneth Starr as independent counsel in October.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart avoided gloating, saying he would "leave it to the American people to make up their own minds on whether this was a useful exercise."

Mrs. Clinton was similarly low key in her response, saying "now everybody can just move on."

So what was Whitewater?

It was a 200-acre vacation time-share development in the Arkansas Ozarks, the 1979 brainchild of James and Susan McDougal, two close friends of the Clintons. The McDougals made the Clintons 50-50 partners but never required them to share its costs equally. When it started fizzling, the McDougals kept the project alive with part of an illegally obtained $300,000 loan from their Arkansas savings and loan, called Madison Guaranty, which later collapsed at a cost to taxpayers of $73 million. Whether the Clintons knew of the loan or had helped obtain it was Whitewater's bedrock question.

The longest independent counsel investigation in history eventually sprawled into inquiries into Vincent Foster's suicide, the firing of the White House travel-office staff, the alleged misuse of FBI personnel files, hush money, tax evasion and the president's cover-up of his affair with Lewinsky.

It led to the convictions of 14 people, including an Arkansas governor and a former associate attorney general, and to the impeachment of a president - all on issues that were, at most, tangential to the land deal.

Investigators will continue to pursue whether White House staff members intentionally withheld e-mail correspondences from the independent counsel, and Ray has empaneled a new grand jury to determine whether the president should be indicted after he leaves office on lying or obstructing justice in the Lewinsky matter.

But the investigation into the Clintons' murky business dealings "is now closed," Ray wrote.

Critics of the probe hailed its end.

"It became the longest shaggy-dog story in recent American history," said Gene Lyons, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and author of "Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater." "It was an endless series of accusations by rhetorical questions which simply reflected the questioners' lack of knowledge of the facts."

Larry Klayman, founder of Judicial Watch, an indefatigable group of conservative Washington lawyers who have sued the administration 70 times, was in a sour mood.

"What it shows is there's a total breakdown of ethics in government with no accountability," said Klayman, who dismissed Ray as "a lifelong Democrat with political aspirations."

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee's senior Democrat, was predictably caustic: ". . . No other prosecutor in the country would have spent six years on a wild goose chase like this."

Actually, there were three prosecutors: Robert Fiske Jr., who was ready to end it quickly; Starr, who proved a fiendishly determined investigator; and Ray.

The most prominent conviction was that of Webster Hubbell, the first lady's former law partner and an influential deputy to Attorney General Janet Reno. Hubbell pleaded guilty to three felonies - tax evasion, mail fraud and concealment by scheme - and served 21 months in prison.

The McDougals were convicted in a 1996 fraud trial stemming from the collapse of Madison Guaranty. Jim Guy Tucker, the sitting governor of the state, also was found guilty. Jim McDougal died in prison, and Susan McDougal served a year and a half behind bars for refusing to tell a federal grand jury whether President Clinton testified truthfully in the case.

Experts on the presidency say the case will amount to little more than a historical footnote.

"With the exception of a few people who worked on it, the case will probably be soon forgotten," said Bert Rockman, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh and author of four books on the office of the presidency. "It will be mentioned as a case of prosecutorial overreach and the end of the line for using special prosecutors."

Compiled from The Baltimore Sun, Knight Ridder Newspapers and The Associated Press.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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