WASHINGTON -- Accused of distorting the words of Webster L. Hubbell, Rep. Dan Burton released more than 50 hours of jail-house recordings yesterday, promising that the full record would be even more damaging to the White House than his committee's initial release of tapes was.
Burton, the fiery chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, exchanged verbal blows with Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, the committee's top Democrat. The issue was the release of taped prison conversations of Hubbell, an old friend of the Clintons and former Justice Department official.
Waxman charged the Indiana Republican with "a systematic effort to mislead the public" by releasing tape transcripts that omitted statements exonerating Hubbell or the first lady, that paraphrased statements to distort their meaning or that "simply made text up."
"It is now clear that the extent of the alteration and selective editing of the tapes is much greater than I previously thought," Waxman said in a letter to Burton.
Burton fired back, "You seem to be operating under the premise that if you lie often enough, it will be accepted as the truth."
Last night, Burton said, "When you hear the other side squealing like a bunch of pigs, you know you're getting closer to the truth."
Because of the blizzard of subpoenas Burton has rained on Democrats, his sometimes profane condemnations of the president and his penchant for conspiracy theories, the House inquiry into 1996 Democratic fund raising has become as much about Burton as about campaign finance abuses.
When Burton launched his investigation last spring, Republicans and Democrats alike fretted that the committee chairman's famous temper and confrontational style would bog down the inquiry in partisanship and give Democrats ample opportunity to focus attention on the committee itself as being hopelessly anti-Clinton.
"Dan is reckless from time to time, and always principled," said Mitch Daniels, a former Reagan White House official and longtime friend of Burton's. "That's a combination Washington is not used to."
Burton's record was no secret. He came to power in Indiana politics in 1982 vowing to overturn school desegregation rulings, courting charges of racism by his opponents, recalled Brian Vargus, an Indiana political scientist.
During the Persian Gulf war, Burton turned heads by calling on President George Bush to use nuclear weapons against Iraq.
But it was with the election of President Clinton that Burton came to the fore. Convinced that Vincent W. Foster Jr., the White House deputy counsel, did not commit suicide, as two independent counsels have concluded, Burton fired a gun at a melon in his backyard to re-enact a death by foul play.
He proposed mandatory testing for the AIDS virus, going so far as to bring his own scissors to the House barbershop for fear of contracting the disease. Former Rep. Andrew Jacobs, an Indiana Democrat who had forged an unlikely friendship with Burton, has said the congressman is so afraid of contracting acquired immune deficiency syndrome that he will not eat soup at restaurants.
Good vs. evil
"He is one of those people who have turned politics into the moral equivalent of war," Vargus said. "He sees the Republican Party as good and the Democrats as the unequivocal representatives of evil. And he will do anything to defeat that evil."
Democrats have returned fire. The Justice Department is still investigating allegations that Burton "shook down" Democratic lobbyist Mark Siegel for a $5,000 campaign donation, threatening to shut Siegel's Pakistani clients out of Republican circles if he did not produce the cash. Burton has denied the allegations.
The yearlong campaign finance investigation has been frustrating to both Republicans, who accuse the White House and its allies of obstructing justice, and Democrats, who insist that it is a partisan witch hunt. But it exploded last month when Burton, in a newspaper interview, called Clinton a "scumbag" and said, "That's why I'm out to get him."
From that point, Burton lost any chance of gaining Democratic cooperation, said a Republican investigator for the Senate's campaign finance inquiry, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Siegel added: "The great fear of Republican leadership was that this loose cannon was going to fall off the deck. He didn't quite fall off the deck until this month or last."
Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi came to Burton's defense.
"He's trying to get at the truth," Lott said. "The White House is trying to block the truth. Go ahead and release them all. Let's just let the American people decide."
Republicans suspect Hubbell of taking $700,000 from Clinton allies to remain quiet about information that could implicate the Clintons in wrongdoing surrounding the Whitewater land deal. Of that money, the committee says, $100,000 came from James Riady, an Indonesian businessman who has been implicated in illegal donations to Democratic candidates.
Waxman released the Democrats' version of the "official record" yesterday.
At one point on the tapes, the Republican transcript had referred to Riady, saying, "Riady is just not easy to do business with."
The actual jail-house tape made no mention of Riady. It said instead, "The reality is, it's just not easy to do business with me while I'm here."
In another instance, the Burton transcript has Hubbell saying: "We have to be very careful about this. Editorials are all talking about how all this is designed to keep me and Susan [McDougal] quiet. We have to make sure that it's our personal friends that are helping."
The actual tape says, "They're all talking about how, you know, all of this everything is designed to keep me and Susan quiet. OK? I'll give you a hypothetical -- is that most of the articles are presupposing that I, my silence is being bought. We know that's not true."
Burton's version left out the phrase, "We all know that's not true."
Such denials are peppered throughout the extended transcripts; most were omitted from the original Republican version. Burton said that distilling 150 hours of conversations into a one-hour tape naturally requires leaving items out, and he said Hubbell's taped protestations of innocence were simply proof that Hubbell understood he was speaking over a taped phone line.
Indeed, that self-consciousness is why some Republican committee investigators advised Burton against releasing any of the tapes. One investigator, Baltimore lawyer Richard Bennett, said that the damaging statements were "no blockbusters" or "smoking guns" and that everything in the recordings was tainted by Hubbell's awareness of being taped.
"The bottom line is, the tapes are of marginal value," agreed Rep. Christopher Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut. "Hubbell is an attorney. He knows all the conversations were recorded, and he was seeking to make sure he gave a message consistent with what he wanted to give."
By releasing the tapes anyway, Burton gave Democrats one more reason to slow the investigation, Shays said.
Democrats had already voted last month against granting five witnesses immunity from prosecution, even though their Justice Department had given the go-ahead.
"I don't think this is a search for justice," said Rep. Thomas M. Barrett, a Wisconsin Democrat on the committee. "This is an attempt to show only bad things about Democrats or people associated with a Democratic administration."
The immunity decision, Barrett said, was "a vote of no confidence in this committee."
Democrats say they may push for a deal when the committee meets tomorrow: They will grant immunity if Burton steps down as committee chairman.
"I'm not going to change, and I'm not going to back off," Burton responded.
Pub Date: 5/05/98