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July 15, 1999
Hillary’s Presumption of Guilt

By Mollie Dickenson

With one last whimper about biased jury pools, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr finally ended the prosecution phase of his five-year Whitewater investigation.

Starr extracted a modest plea bargain from the hapless Webster Hubbell and turned to a final report that reportedly will contain a "blistering" section on likely U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Yet, the final moments of Starr's criminal pursuit could have been a microcosm of the Whitewater affair: leaks about expected criminal charges, hyped coverage by both conservative and mainstream news outlets, a climax that falls flat, excuses, and more promised proof of serious wrongdoing.

In late June, the Washington press corps finally was sure that the Hubbell case would lift the rock on the squirmy Castle Grande land deal and shine a harsh light on Hillary Clinton's unethical legal work for Jim McDougal's Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan.

As word spread that Hubbell had agreed to a plea bargain, unnamed sources assured reporters that the Castle Grande suspicions had proved out and that Hillary Clinton would be held to account, if not in a court of law, at least in the court of public opinion.

The right-wing Washington Times quoted "law enforcement sources" announcing that "Hubbell will plead guilty to a felony count of covering up his legal representation of Castle Grande, a project on which he and Mrs. Clinton worked." The Times announced that "Mr. Hubbell's cooperation could result in charges against the first lady." [WT, June 29, 1999]

The New York Times echoed that assessment, reporting that Hubbell “will plead guilty to a felony charge of lying about the role he and Hillary Rodham Clinton played in a questionable Arkansas land deal.” [NYT, June 29, 1999]

The next day, as this new Whitewater clamor grew, a lead editorial in The Washington Post added that Hubbell "will apparently admit that he lied about his and Hillary Clinton's work at the Rose Law Firm on a shady deal known as Castle Grande. …

"An admission by Mr. Hubbell that Mr. Starr's narrative is essentially true would be a significant validation of a major component of the morass of Whitewater-related allegations. It would also eliminate the common vision of Mr. Hubbell as chiefly a victim of Mr. Starr's piling on." [WP, June 30, 1999]

When Hubbell actually did appear in federal court on June 30, however, a very different story emerged. Hubbell, the Clinton chum and former associate attorney general, pleaded guilty to two technical violations. But there was no admission about Castle Grande and no evidence against Mrs. Clinton.

In one felony count, Hubbell admitted that he failed to disclose a "potential conflict of interest" in the Rose Law Firm's representation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. involving a lawsuit in which Madison Guaranty had sued its accountant.

One year after the FDIC asked Rose to take over the lawsuit in the 1980s, Hubbell discovered that Rose had a slight conflict that FDIC officials later said would not have made much difference in their thinking anyway. “Even the opposing attorneys dismissed it as a problem,” noted Hubbell’s lawyer John Nields.

Pillsbury Madison & Sutro, the law firm hired by the Resolution Trust Corp. to investigate Whitewater, also judged that Hubbell had competently handled the case. He “was not less than aggressive in pursuing” it for the federal government and exacted a $1 million settlement when “substantially less than that was expected.”

After entering his guilty plea to this arcane offense on June 30, Hubbell repeated his long-standing position that he "had no knowledge of any wrongdoing on the part of Mrs. Clinton or the president." Nields added: "It has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton. It has nothing to do with land deals in Arkansas."

Hubbell also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of tax evasion and promised to try to pay off $761,000 in back taxes that he failed to pay when he was in prison. Hubbell already has served 16 months in jail on unrelated charges of overbilling clients and cheating on his expense account at the Rose Law Firm in the 1980s.

In agreeing to plead guilty to the two counts, Hubbell avoided additional jail time and freed his wife, lawyer and accountant from their indictments as co-conspirators. "The Office of Independent Counsel has finally agreed to leave me, my family and my friends alone, and our lives can begin again," said Hubbell.

To some Starr critics, Hubbell's plea had more the smell of ransom than justice. "It's highly unusual to say the least," said Washington defense attorney Stanley Brand. "No other person on the face of the planet would be sued criminally for a technical reporting violation."

But the plea did nothing to advance Starr's goal of indicting Hillary Clinton, one of Hubbell's law partners at the Rose Law Firm. Starr announced that the Arkansas/Whitewater phase of his investigation "has been concluded by today's activities."

Despite that announcement, Starr would not concede that he was at fault for anything. He explained that he opted for the modest plea bargain because of public prejudice against his investigation.

After facing hung juries in cases he brought against Susan McDougal and Julie Hiatt Steele, Starr implied that the potential jury pool was tainted by its "preconceptions" caused by the highly publicized impeachment of President Clinton.

"It is in the public interest, we believe, to find an appropriate and, we believe, just disposition of these matters and to try to bring our work to as orderly a conclusion as possible," Starr stated outside the federal courthouse in Washington.

The next day, the news media reported the outcome of the Hubbell plea bargain, but avoided apologies for its erroneous stories from the day before. Most grudging was The Washington Times which highlighted Starr’s insistence that if not for the tainted jury pool, "he was prepared to prove 'all of the factual allegations in Count One of the indictment,' including the Castle Grande allegations involving the first lady." [WT, July 1, 1999]

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