WASHINGTON -- It was a bizarre moment, even in the nation's capital. A senator once cited for improper conduct was questioning a former top administration official who is preparing to spend most of the next two years in jail for tax fraud. The subject of their discussion: ethics.
The scene unfolded yesterday as Sen. Alphonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., questioned former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell during the second day of renewed Whitewater hearings.
Privately, Republican strategists acknowledged that Hubbell had been called to testify at the Senate hearings primarily because his appearance was likely to embarrass President Clinton.
Hubbell, the former No. 3 official at the Justice Department and a close Clinton friend, recently was sentenced to 22 months in prison for filing false expense account reports totaling nearly $500,000 while working for his former Arkansas law firm. His crime did not involve the president or Mr. Clinton's controversial Whitewater real estate investment.
Democrats, on the other hand, accused Mr. D'Amato of hypocrisy for focusing on the ethics of the White House. They recalled that a 1991 investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee found Mr. D'Amato had "conducted the business of his office in an improper and inappropriate manner."
It was against that background that the exchanges between Mr. D'Amato and Hubbell seemed so striking. They were discussing the ethical question of whether White House officials acted properly in dealing with a police investigation of the 1993 suicide of then-Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster.
At one point, for example, Mr. D'Amato asked Hubbell whether a person without a top security clearance should have been permitted to enter Foster's office after the death. Hubbell replied he thought it was wrong. Mr. D'Amato added that he was troubled by it. Neither man acknowledged that his own ethical judgment had ever come under public scrutiny.
Mr. D'Amato and other Republicans on the special Senate Whitewater panel have accused White House officials of improperly interfering with an investigation conducted by the Park Police, the FBI and the Justice Department into Foster's suicide.
Specifically, they are questioning whether White House officials were trying to hide something by refusing to allow investigators to search Foster's office.
At the Democratic National Committee, Co-chairman Don Fowler issued a statement saying that Mr. D'Amato "is the last person the Senate who ought to be conducting hearings on ethics." He added: "D'Amato is an ethical black hole."
Perhaps yesterday's episode helps explain why, according to a new poll, a majority of Americans now see the Whitewater investigation being conducted by congressional committees as something of a political charade. According to the ABC/Washington Post survey, 67 percent of those questioned believed that the hearings were being held primarily to embarrass the president.
According to the Post, the poll shows the hearings could backfire on the Republicans if their inquiry into Whitewater appears to be politically motivated. Democrats claim the hearings are intended simply to throw mud at Mr. Clinton.
Hubbell, who will begin his prison term early next month, was questioned for 3 1/2 hours yesterday. A close friend of Foster, he testified primarily about his role in helping the family on the night of July 20, 1993, after his friend's body was found in a park in suburban Washington.
Although Hubbell was not at the White House that night, Republicans asked him repeatedly for his opinion, as a lawyer, about the decision of White House officials to inspect Foster's office that night. He replied that he said he had no knowledge of the events.
Republicans also asked Hubbell many times whether he agreed with the opinion of then-White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum, who said he had an obligation under the principles of executive privilege and attorney-client privilege to shield internal White House documents from law enforcement officials investigating Foster's suicide.
To their obvious disappointment, Hubbell tended to side with Nussbaum, and noted that Foster's files contained highly confidential documents, including a list of possible Supreme Court nominees. Yet Hubbell quickly added that his knowledge of attorney-client privilege was limited to his former practice under Arkansas state law.