En route to jury duty Wednesday, I marveled at the proverb chiseled in stone above the entrance to the State Supreme Court in Manhattan: “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.”
Whether such stirring words still mean anything rests largely in the hands of Congress. Unfortunately, GOP leaders on Capitol Hill seem eager to sweep Pardongate under a Persian rug even as unanswered questions accumulate like hot antiques in a Chappaqua mansion. This Republican rush from judgment suggests that party elders regard possible acts of bribery by former President Clinton as clearly unfortunate, but unworthy of consequences or even a full accounting. Investigating what appears to be a contributions-for-clemency racket suddenly looks like an unacceptable inconvenience. “I assume we have had enough hearings,” Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R., Miss.) told reporters Monday. “I’m inclined to move on.” Lott’s capitulation parallels both President Bush’s stated interest in “moving forward” and quieter pressure to end congressional probes into the notorious Marc Rich pardon.
“Everyone’s not real happy with us over there,” one GOP Hill staffer told Newsweek. “I’ve been getting calls from the White House saying, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing?’”
Rep. Henry Hyde (R., Ill.) told USA Today, “I’m all against piling on. That creates a victim status for people who don’t deserve it.” Rep. Peter King (R., NY) simply wondered, “When is this going to end?”
These typically nervous Republicans ignore the absolutely crucial stakes here: A just-departed president may have traded pardons and commutations for campaign cash and library donations. There is nothing cute about this. It is neither funny nor merely colorful. Equal justice under law is a lynchpin of American liberty. If Bill Clinton essentially auctioned grants of clemency, he perpetrated an aggravated assault on one of this republic’s basic tenets. Bush, Lott, and others eager to ring the curtain down on Pardongate are behaving disturbingly like accessories to high crimes.
U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White is investigating the Rich pardon and a possible votes-for-clemency swap that may have benefited Senator Hillary Clinton (D., NY) and already has reduced jail time for four Hasidic hustlers from New Square, New York. One hopes White will dig like a gopher. However, some critics fear her inability or refusal to indict senior Democrats and high-level trade unionists in a Teamsters political funny-money scheme might foreshadow a free pass for the Clintons.
Even if White pursues the Duke and Duchess of Chappaqua with the energy and intelligence of Sherlock Holmes, she is not attorney general. Her jurisdiction is the Southern District of New York. If the bribery or gratuity laws were violated in the cases of Californian Carlos Vignali (convicted of shipping 800 pounds of cocaine from Los Angeles to Minneapolis) or Floridian Almon Glen Braswell (convicted of peddling bogus baldness cures) such offenses would fall outside Mary Jo White’s bailiwick.
Prosecution aside, Americans deserve all the facts in this matter. Opponents of the independent-counsel statute called it superfluous since Congress would root out wrongdoing, especially when a rival party controlled the White House. Now, many who doomed the independent counsel law are fleeing from their congressional oversight duties.
There could be a Realpolitik rationale for Republicans’ cold feet if the Left ferociously opposed a Pardongate probe. To the contrary, liberals ranging from New York Times columnist Bob Herbert to Jimmy Carter aide Hamilton Jordan to Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) have pummeled Bill Clinton with words worthy of Rush Limbaugh in a rotten mood.
“The failures in the pardon process should embarrass every Democrat and every American,” Waxman declared at a March 1 House Government Reform Committee hearing. “It is a shameful lapse that must be acknowledged, because to ignore it would betray basic principles of justice that Democrats believe in.”
The March 5 issue of the liberal New York Observer featured a front-page cartoon of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Hugh Rodham, each clad in manacles and prison stripes, fleeing into the Gotham skyline. “O Clinton, where art thou?” read the caption. An adjacent editorial dismissed Bill Clinton as “an untrustworthy low-life who used people for his own purposes and then discarded them.” It denounced Hillary Clinton as “an equally detestable partner in a scandal whose sleazy dealings finally have been brought to light.” The editorial then suggested that she resign.
The Republican retreat might make sense if evidence mounted that these pardons indeed were legitimate. But every day, their stench increasingly resembles tear gas. Bill Clinton’s top aides testified March 1 that they vigorously opposed the Rich pardon and told him so. Cheryl Mills, a one-time deputy White House counsel, participated in January 19 West Wing meetings on the Rich pardon. She also had a detailed phone conversation about Rich’s clemency application with Justice Department pardon attorney Roger Adams. At that time, Mills no longer was a White House employee. She was, however, a trustee of the Clinton library to which Denise Rich donated $450,000.
Last week’s hearing also revealed a March 18, 2000 e-mail in which Rich representative Avner Azulay proposed to Rich attorney Robert Fink that Denise Rich go “on a ‘personal’ mission to NO1 with a well-prepared script.” (“NO1,” investigators believe, was President Clinton.) Three days later, Rich gave $50,000 to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign. Another $50,000 eventually followed. Over the next seven months, Rich pumped $275,000 into Democratic campaign coffers, plus $100,000 to the Clinton library (atop her $350,000 in previous gifts). On January 20, Denise Rich’s $475,000 personal mission was accomplished when her ex-husband won his notorious pardon.
Meanwhile, Hugh and Tony Rodham and Roger Clinton pushed pardon applications on the president for fun and profit. While Tony Rodham’s services apparently were gratis, Hugh Rodham charged and eventually returned $400,000 in fees for securing the Vignali and Braswell pardons.
The March 8 Los Angeles Times quotes Little Rock attorney Eugene O’Daniel who said his client, Phillip David Young, had been approached about a pardon by a “certain individual” who offered to “make it happen, but that it would cost $15,000.” That individual allegedly is Roger Clinton. Bill Clinton pardoned Young for illegally shipping game fish across state lines.
Congressional Republicans — not surprisingly — are surrendering without being attacked. Doing so will not buy President Bush one more vote for his tax cut or any other part of his agenda, nor will it inoculate the GOP from the next scandal that involves Republicans. Whenever that occurs, Democrats will snarl and bark until the accused Republicans are hounded from office.
All this has left Bill Clinton not remorseful, but cockier than ever. Monday he spurned Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter’s request to interview him about the Rich pardon, in private, along with a Democratic senator.
“It is nothing we are inclined to do,” Clinton spokesman Julia Payne told Reuters. Asked if Clinton were leaving open a window to revisit the proposal later, Payne replied: “There is no window. You can shut it.”
The one Republican who has served his country best is Indiana Republican Dan Burton, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. He, his colleagues and staff are trying diligently to hold Bill Clinton accountable for his actions while documenting the climax of Clinton’s term.
But Dan Burton’s fight for public integrity is an increasingly lonely one. After eight years of William Jefferson Clinton, perjury has been excused as, more or less, no big deal while obstruction of justice and witness tampering have become the stuff of winks and nods. And now, prominent Republicans from the Oval Office to Capitol Hill seem fully prepared to add bribery to the list of crimes Americans can tolerate among our highest officials.