WASHINGTON -- Just days before a self-imposed deadline to end their impeachment inquiry, Judiciary Committee Republicans today will launch a major expansion of their probe -- with five subpoenas that will move the inquiry into allegations that President Clinton violated campaign finance laws in his 1996 re-election bid.
Republicans plan to depose FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and Charles LaBella, who formerly led the Justice Department's campaign finance task force. The committee also will subpoena Attorney General Janet Reno and demand that she release secret memos by Freeh and LaBella.
Those memos recommended that Reno seek the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate whether the president and vice president violated the law in their quest for campaign cash.
In addition, the Reno subpoena will demand documents related to the fund-raising efforts of four Democratic operatives: John Huang, Johnnie Chung, Charlie Trie and Mark Middleton. The committee also will subpoena independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to release his documents on Huang, a former Commerce Department official and rogue Democratic fund-raiser.
And in a provocative final move, the committee will subpoena Clinton, demanding that he order Reno to produce the documents immediately. A Republican committee aide said the sudden move was prompted by a tip from government sources in the administration.
"The committee has received information which suggests that the campaign finance abuse memos may contain allegations of criminal wrongdoing by the president," said Paul McNulty, a Republican spokesman for the committee. "The committee is duty-bound to investigate that information."
McNulty insisted that the subpoenas would not affect a pledge by Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the committee chairman, to complete the House's impeachment process by the end of the year. But yesterday's aggressive moves signal that, despite opinion polls suggesting that the public opposes impeachment, committee Republicans are determined to find presidential wrongdoing that might drive Clinton from office.
Reno could refuse to release the memos. She has maintained that they contain sensitive information that would compromise the Justice Department's own campaign finance inquiry. Her refusal would touch off a high-stakes showdown with Congress that could stretch the impeachment inquiry out for weeks, if not months.
The committee will vote today on the subpoenas, with passage pre-ordained because Republicans hold the majority of committee seats.
Democrats, caught by surprise by the new developments, denounced the moves as "mindless flailing around."
"This says quite a bit about the confidence Republicans have for the impeachment case they've presented to Congress," said James Jordan, a spokesman for the committee Democrats.
Jordan noted that Senate Republicans, House Republicans and Justice Department investigators have all been investigating campaign finance improprieties for two years, thus far to no avail.
"This is not about impeachment," he said. "This is about politics."
Committee Republicans appear to be demanding a showdown with a president who has so far tried to remain serenely above the impeachment process. Since last summer, Reno has refused to give Republicans the memos from Freeh and LaBella, and Clinton has shown no interest in pushing her to do so. If they refuse again, it will be in direct violation of a congressional subpoena.
Clinton stuck yesterday to what Republicans have labeled a "no-defense strategy" on the impeachment matter, declining a committee invitation to testify in defense of his actions in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Clinton has denied that he lied under oath, obstructed justice, tampered with witnesses or abused his office. In his written answers last week to 81 questions submitted by the committee, the president again declared his innocence but offered no new information to try to absolve himself.
Many Republicans say Clinton's refusal to explain exactly why ,, his statements under oath do not amount to perjury showed the need for impeachment and not some lesser action, such as a censure.
"Instead of shedding new light on the key facts, the president chose to evade them," Hyde said in a statement. "He did not challenge the truthfulness of the evidence. Rather, his responses revealed a selective ability to recall information."
But Jim Kennedy, a spokesman for the White House counsel's office, said White House lawyers have yet to decline or accept a committee invitation to appear next week in defense of the president. Hyde has given the White House until tomorrow to decide.
Meanwhile, committee Republicans will move forward. The panel will hold a hearing today on the role of perjury in the judicial process, with testimony from federal judges, convicted perjurers and armed forces officers who will discuss the damaging effect of lying about sex on military morale.
The Republicans' star witnesses, Barbara Battalino and Pam Parsons, were chosen for the similarities of their cases to the Lewinsky matter: Both were convicted of federal crimes arising from lying under oath to conceal sexual relationships.
But Republican efforts to sway public opinion in favor of impeachment may be losing out to Clinton's stealth strategy of lying low and trusting that the force of his popularity among the American people will save his presidency.
"Having weighed all facts, it now seems clear to me the American people have concluded that a punishment and response short of impeachment would be the most appropriate course of action," said Rep. Paul McHale, a retiring Pennsylvania Democrat who has called for Clinton to resign. "The Congress has the power to declare war without the support of the American people. We can impeach as well."
"But in both cases," McHale added, "that course of action would be profoundly misguided."
Many Democrats, including McHale, are pushing for a strongly worded resolution of censure that would condemn the president's sexual affair and his efforts to conceal it, but would stop short of impeachment. House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt has begun coordinating disjointed efforts within his party to craft an alternative to impeachment.
And Rep. William D. Delahunt of Massachusetts, a committee Democrat, has enlisted a conservative law professor, William Van Alstyne of Duke University, to help draft a resolution of censure that Delahunt hopes will have bipartisan credibility. Van Alstyne appeared as a Republican witness at a hearing last month on the impeachment process.
At Delahunt's behest, Van Alstyne and Laurence Tribe, a liberal law professor at Harvard University, drafted separate censure resolutions. Michael J. Gerhardt, a moderate law scholar at the College of William and Mary, served as a mediator in a delicate effort to craft language out of Van Alstyne's and Tribe's competing proposals that would satisfy both ends of the political spectrum.
In e-mail discussions last weekend, Van Alstyne said yesterday, the three scholars hammered out their differences in a proposed censure resolution that has yet to be made public.
"It talks a lot about [Clinton's] personal, persistent and public mendacity, and his moral indecency," Van Alstyne said. "It's pretty sharp."
Republicans have tried to squelch talk of a censure. After McHale released his own sharply worded censure resolution, Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a committee Republican, dashed off a letter to Republican colleagues, imploring them to withhold judgment until the committee has completed its work.
But the committee's work appears somewhat aimless. Last week's deposition of an attorney for Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer, did little to advance the obstruction of justice case against the president.
Yesterday, Nathan Landow, a wealthy Maryland developer and Democratic donor, was asked by committee lawyers whether he had any knowledge that the president's allies -- himself included -- tried to buy Willey's silence regarding her allegation that Clinton had groped her near the Oval Office in 1993.
Landow refused to answer, pleading his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Pub Date: 12/01/98