Investigators suspect Hubbell was hoping for pardon Prison tapes detail talks with lawyers on returns


WASHINGTON -- As he sat in prison six days before the 1996 presidential election, Webster Hubbell and his lawyers worked frantically to amend old tax returns that had significantly understated his income. This was part of an effort, investigators now suspect, to make him an attractive candidate for a presidential pardon.

"There is some chance that the day after Election Day, they will make a move that moots everything," Hubbell's lawyer, John Nields, told his client over one of the prison telephones whose calls are routinely recorded by the federal Bureau of Prisons. "And I don't want to discourage it."

"I would like to make a record of complete and unvarnished forthrightness at every step of the way," Nields continued in this conversation.

Although Nields did not actually use the word "pardon," his comments were taken by investigators to mean that there was a hope that cleaning up Hubbell's financial problems might leave President Clinton more disposed toward granting a pardon, the investigators said.

At the time, there seemed no other way out for Hubbell. Prosecutors were beginning to bear down on Hubbell a second time for possible tax evasion and for taking money from Clinton supporters while maintaining his silence on Whitewater-related issues.

Clinton said Thursday that there had been no discussion about pardons for any of his friends caught up in the Whitewater investigation. Jim Kennedy, a special adviser to the White House counsel, said yesterday that Hubbell's prison conversations were disclosed by Republican lawmakers in transcripts that were selectively edited and could be misleading.

Nields declined to comment about the conversation or any others he had with Hubbell, who was charged Thursday with a new round of crimes, including tax evasion, conspiracy and fraud. Hubbell served 18 months in prison for an earlier conviction for bilking his former clients and law partners in Arkansas of more than $400,000.

lTC His conversation with Nields at a federal prison in Cumberland, Md., on Oct. 30, 1996, was one of dozens Hubbell had with his lawyers, family and friends that were transcribed and released yesterday by the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. Some of the prison tapes were also played to Hillary Rodham Clinton last Saturday during her interrogation by prosecutors from the Whitewater independent counsel's office.

Transcripts of the conversations, held throughout 1996, portray Hubbell as a fierce loyalist to the Clintons buffeted by pressure from the White House and the Whitewater independent counsel. He is heard repeatedly insisting that he will never disclose all he knows about the Clintons, anxiously wondering where he and his wife will find income to meet their crushing debt, and looking to the kindness of Clinton friends for future jobs.

The transcripts show that Hubbell was aware at times that his conversations were being recorded but give no clue as to why his comments were so unguarded. While such tapes are frequently used by law enforcement authorities, legal experts said yesterday that it is uncommon for such tapes to be publicly released.

Democrats in Congress and a top lawyer to the Clintons expressed outrage yesterday about the decision by the committee's Republican chairman, Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, to release what they contended were private conversations.

"It offends my sense of fair play and decency that the chairman would release such personal information relating to intimate conversations that Webb Hubbell would have with his wife and personal friends about subjects that have nothing to do with our investigation," said Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the committee's ranking Democrat.

Pub Date: 5/02/98

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