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Published: 7/20/2003

Burden of legal bills falls to the Clintons

Talk about your double standards. One need not be fond of Bill and Hillary Clinton to argue that they got shafted by a federal judicial panel last week. The special appeals panel - the same one that appointed Kenneth Starr to take over the Whitewater investigation in 1994 and permitted him to veer off that dead-end probe to zero in on the White House coverup of the Monica Lewinsky affair - ruled against reimbursing the Clintons multimillion-dollar legal costs. Surprise, surprise.

The seven-year, $70 million Whitewater/Paula Jones (et al)/Lewinsky investigation left the former president and first lady owing between $1.7 million and $6.5 million in outstanding legal bills.

Tough, you say? Let 'em write another book or give a few more speeches, you suggest? OK, so nobody is crying buckets for the financial burden the Clintons incurred in part by a president who couldn't keep his trousers zipped or answer truthfully about his peccadilloes. But the fact is former presidents investigated for far worse crimes than having oral sex in the Oval Office and lying about it were awarded legal reimbursements.

For my money, a president who circumvents Congress and the rule of law to illegally sell arms to Iran - a violation of the Arms Export Control Act and possibly an impeachable offense - is a lot more dangerous than one who deceives about an extramarital fling. But an appeals court ruled mostly in Ronald Reagan's favor when he tried to recoup his legal costs. The independent counsel law says legal fees can be paid to the subject of an investigation if he's not indicted.

Reimbursement was granted to Mr. Reagan because the court said he had reason to believe he faced a “realistic possibility” of being indicted in the Iran-contra investigation while incurring his legal bills. The former president collected 72 percent of his legal costs, or $562,111. He had asked for $777,000. Vice President George H.W. Bush, whose repeated claims that he was “out of the loop” on Iran-contra decisions was debunked by documents submitted by the Republican independent counsel, recouped 59 percent of his legal debt, or $272,352.

The Clintons, who were never indicted, got 2 percent of their request for Whitewater costs: $85,312.01. The court said those fees were related to the final report of the independent counsel, who normally doesn't issue one. The Clintons had asked for $3.58 million in legal bills accumulated while their role in the Whitewater land deal was being futilely investigated by Independent Counsel Robert Fiske and, later, Mr. Starr. The three-judge panel noted that even though nothing indictable could be pinned on the Clintons, others were convicted. The president was impeached and the couple should pay the majority of their legal fees for a warranted investigation.

The total Reagan era convictions for various scandals were 31. Iran-contra got 14, (two overturned on appeal). White House political director Lyn Nofziger was convicted for illegal lobbying, and the Housing and Urban Development scandal resulted in 16 convictions. The first President Bush pardoned seven of those indicted or convicted of Iran-contra crimes and the second President Bush appointed one of the pardoned, Elliot Abrams - who pled guilty to Iran-Contra crimes - to the National Security Council.

Fast forward to the summer of our uncertainty for a fresh look at double standards. The Bush II administration has been caught in a lie with huge ramifications that make the ribald Lewinsky saga seem insignificant.

What was clearly suspected before the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been confirmed - Reagan-era hawks in the Bush White House schemed to topple Saddam Hussein by whatever means it took, regardless of their validity.

The so-called weapons of mass destruction remain missing in action, and now the world knows the President's State of the Union message in January contained titillating remarks about Iraq seeking nuclear material from Africa, which the administration knew in advance was shaky at best. The President and his Baghdad-bound zealots pursued a Machiavellian agenda with little regard for the cost to the U.S. in terms of lives, resources, and years of costly commitment.

The credibility of not just a president but a nation has been compromised. Perhaps the well-heeled friends of W. would be wise to start a legal defense fund for their Midland cowboy.

He may think the controversy concerning his pre-war maneuvers will go away by simply declaring it over. But the unfolding investigation into the unscrupulous behavior that pushed a nation into its first pre-emptive war could stretch beyond anything even Ken Starr imagined.



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