WASHINGTON -- It has been a humbling experience, Richard D. Bennett says of his not-so-excellent adventure in the nation's capital.
The former U.S. attorney for Maryland arrived with zeal in September as the new chief counsel to a House committee investigating the role foreign money played in President Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign. The job represented a chance to hone his legal skills and could have been a boost to his political career.
Instead, Bennett got mired in the acrimony that has characterized the inquiry led by Rep. Dan Burton, an outspokenly conservative Indiana Republican. Bennett is expected to leave the job this summer -- so far with little to show for his effort. "I may have suffered from a little bit of the Superman complex; thinking, with my abilities, that I could undo any damage" that preceded his arrival, Bennett says. "I think I bit off a hell of a lot more than I could chew."
This month, House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced that a committee led by GOP Rep. Christopher Cox of California -- pointedly not Burton's panel -- would handle new allegations that the Chinese government funneled money to the 1996 Clinton campaign. Bennett will help with that effort for the next couple of months.
But, in his primary task as Burton's chief lawyer, Bennett failed, he says, in his attempt to steer the inquiry in a substantive direction. "I don't regret being down here. I regret where I find the investigation right now," he says.
Which is basically nowhere, critics charge, because Burton and David Bossie, his chief investigator -- who is also his top political adviser -- turned the inquiry into a witch hunt. Even some Republicans acknowledge that important findings have been obscured by controversy.
"Sometimes people allow their own strong feelings about President Clinton to affect their judgment," Bennett said. "I've never viewed my role as trying to nail the president. I'm trying to determine the role of foreign money in the American political system.
"I prefer to keep my head down and build my case," Bennett says.
Colleagues suggest that warning signs should have been obvious.
Partisan strife was so high that Democrats had begun calling for Burton's ouster even before Bennett took over. Witnesses have refused to cooperate. And even among Republican staff members there has been sharp dissent.
What's more, Bennett's predecessor angrily quit the job, contending that Bossie was leading the panel in an unprofessional manner.
"The divisions here were deeper than I imagined," Bennett says.
Almost a year later, little seems to have changed. Democrats are howling at the conduct of Burton, who said recently that he was "out to get" Clinton because the president is "a scumbag."
Potentially embarrassing revelations about Clinton friend and felon Webster L. Hubbell, a former assistant U.S. attorney general, were lost in the clamor generated by Burton's release of edited tapes of Hubbell talking from jail by telephone. Many people interpreted Bossie's editing of the tapes as unfair and invasive of Hubbell's privacy.
After the outcry, Gingrich forced Bossie to resign.
While Bossie would not discuss Bennett publicly, he has described their relationship as professional and contended that they did not differ greatly on strategy.
But Bennett was frustrated, some colleagues say, that he was unable to get Burton and Bossie to work with Democrats to focus on illegal campaign donations by foreigners. The pair preferred to concentrate on Hubbell and other Clinton associates linked to Whitewater scandals.
As evidence of his even-handedness, Bennett points to a recent deposition of Matt Fong, a California Republican who is state treasurer and a candidate for the U.S. Senate who received $100,000 from a Chinese citizen. Bennett says this is a sign that he is not simply looking at Democrats.
Yet Democrats say they are not convinced.
Of the more than 1,000 subpoenas issued to witnesses, only 12 came at the request of committee Democrats, who sought to examine GOP fund-raising. A Burton spokesman cleared Fong even as Bennett was interviewing him.
"I can only judge by the results of the last year," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat who is Burton's most agile opponent. "We've accomplished little, we've spent millions of dollars, and the whole investigation has been a debacle."
Lawyers who have worked with Bennett say he is a bridge-builder who tends not to sucker-punch his adversaries. "He's a tough advocate for his cause, but I found him to be a straight-shooter, a very decent guy," says Lanny A. Breuer, special counsel to the president. "I built up a constructive relationship with him."
Long-time Bennett associates would add one more element: He is extremely ambitious.
A year after he left the U.S. attorney's office in 1993, Bennett challenged Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., the popular Democrat who had held the job since 1987. Bennett lost, but claimed 46 percent of the vote -- a very respectable finish in a state dominated by Democrats. He readily recites chapter and verse about the precincts he won.
After the race, Bennett returned to private practice as a partner with the Baltimore firm of Miles & Stockbridge, where he could have comfortably remained.
Yet he decided to head to Washington and a makeshift office adorned with a plant, a military surplus cot and a view of a parking lot. A scattering of the plaques and political photos that mark almost all public lives hangs on thin, temporary walls.
A calculated gamble
The move was a calculated gamble that might have paid off.
"It could have been Watergate. There was a lot of smoke early on," says an aide to a House Republican on Burton's committee. If the inquiry had trapped Clinton in major campaign violations, Bennett would have been known as "the attorney that brought to light one of the great presidential scandals of the century."
Instead, Bennett plans to leave Washington this summer at end of his contract, which pays his law firm $15,000 a month.
Trim at 50 and still sporting an accent bred in Severna Park, Bennett is being touted by some as a possible running mate for GOP gubernatorial front-runner Ellen R. Sauerbrey. Neither he nor the Sauerbrey camp will speculate publicly on the choice.
Yet some state political figures say Bennett's political star is dimmed by his time in Washington.
"It's going to be hard for anyone associated with the investigation to come out with a positive image of what was accomplished," says Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who nonetheless calls Bennett a person of integrity.
Others say it's a mistake to write off Bennett.
"Nobody blames the first mate for what happens on the Titanic," says political consultant Dick Leggitt, who worked on Bennett's 1994 bid for attorney general. "When he feels the time is right, he'll be heard from."
Pub Date: 5/26/98