CONASON: D'Amato Backs Down, But Nobody Noticed

Getting his name in the paper of record used to be easier for Alfonse D'Amato. When he chaired the Senate Whitewater Committee hearings last summer, he could count on extensive coverage for his barking and bawling about cover-ups, perjury and obstruction of justice.Now Mr. D'Amato can say things that are truly shocking, and nobody at The New York Times even takes notes.The other day, he told talk-jock Don Imus that he lacks confidence in Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr. He said Mr. Starr should complete his investigation swiftly because the American people are sick of Whitewater. He even hinted that Mr. Starr had bungled the case and sneered at the independent counsel's aborted resignation last February.This was a big story, even though The Times chose to suppress it. Here was the legislator most knowledgeable about Whitewater and related matters pouring scorn on the "scandal" he spent two years promoting! Although Mr. D'Amato may be paying more attention to polls than prosecutors when he criticizes Mr. Starr, it is also true that he won't face the voters for 18 months. Whatever he knows about Whitewater, he doesn't seem to believe any significant indictments will be issued before November 1998.Mr. D'Amato voiced his doubts amid great hubbub over Webster Hubbell. Mr. Hubbell, you'll recall, is the Clinton pal forced to resign as Associate Attorney General in March 1994, and who later pleaded guilty nine months later to mail fraud and tax evasion in a billing scam that ripped off his clients and partners (including Hillary Rodham Clinton) at the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas. While ignoring Mr. D'Amato, The Times has been promoting the theory that Mr. Hubbell was provided "hush money" by the White House in exchange for his silence. The paper's line has been established by William Safire, who writes with apparent certitude of "extensive White House efforts to keep Hubbell, repositor of so many Whitewater secrets, from cooperating with prosecutors."Similar accusations are hinted at by Mr. D'Amato's former chief counsel on the Whitewater committee, Michael Chertoff, who compares the $500,000 Mr. Hubbell was paid by various clients after he quit the Justice Department in March 1994 to "the old tradition with criminal groups about taking care of someone's family if they go and take the weight and protect the higher-ups."Actually, it was Mr. D'Amato's committee that first discovered, more than a year ago, the consulting fees paid to Mr. Hubbell by those notorious friends of the White House in the Lippo Group. But Mr. D'Amato isn't ranting about cover-ups anymore.Perhaps that's because he knows that rather than clamming up, Mr. Hubbell was quite talkative. After weeks of negotiations with the independent counsel's top deputy, Mr. Hubbell agreed to tell everything he knew. For that promise, he was allowed to plead to two felony counts, rather than be indicted and tried on dozens more. During the months that followed, he spent at least 100 hours talking to prosecutors, while Mr. Starr twice requested postponements of his sentencing because of the "highly important" nature of his testimony. Unfortunately for him, Mr. Hubbell never said what Mr. Starr wanted to hear: He got 21 months in a Federal facility, only six months short of the maximum.If the White House was trying to purchase Mr. Hubbell's silence, why would they have paid him months in advance of his decision about whether to cooperate? Why not wait to make sure he "took the weight"? And why would they involve dozens of strangers in their alleged scheme to grease Mr. Hubbell, any one of whom might squeal? With all due respect, that isn't the way the mob does business, for good reason.The truth, as Mr. Safire reported at the time, is that the White House was "staggered" when Mr. Hubbell, who had all along protested his innocence, copped a plea.What seems peculiar is that Mr. Starr evidently didn't determine what this confessed felon would say about his former best friends, the President and First Lady, before taking his plea bargain. As a precondition to any such deal, competent prosecutors usually demand a "proffer" of useful information from the defense. Interviewed recently, Mr. Chertoff, a former U.S. Attorney in New Jersey with an enviable record of convictions, could not name a single instance in his own career when he had accepted a plea without a proffer. Maybe Mr. Starr is part of the cover-up conspiracy, too.Suppose Mr. Hubbell did possess incriminating knowledge about the Clintons. Hoping to solicit Mr. Starr's help in avoiding prison, and having already taken $500,000 in payments from various clients while working out his plea, what was to stop him from then spilling his ample guts? Not any sense of honor, surely. Webster Hubbell is just a white-collar crook, not a stand-up guy.Unless a credible witness comes forward to confirm the hush-money scenario, it eventually will fade into a far-fetched excuse for Mr. Starr's failure to make a case against his main targets, many months and $30 million after he accepted the job. No wonder he wanted to quit last February. And no wonder Al D'Amato has lowered his once great expectations.

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