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THE METHODICAL WORK OF A Little Rock jury has put an end once and for all to the proposition, advanced tirelessly by the defenders of Bill Clinton, that nothing really wrong was going on at the intersection of politics and money down in Arkansas during the 1980s.

Maybe they were all too cozy down there, the defenders said, and maybe there were some sleazy deals, but given the nature of the problems facing the nation in this last decade of the millennium, so what? And besides, it was all so complicated. Who in Washington had the time or stamina to wade through hundreds of pages of still-incomplete documentation in order to try to figure out the details of ten-year-old loans? Such obsessive activity would almost have to be partisan in inspiration, wouldn’t it?

No. Two weeks ago it became the work of a jury — twelve ordinary Arkansans who had been carefully screened for any sign of partisan bias, locked in a room for eight days with each other, some 700 pages of documents, and their notes on the testimony of 37 witnesses. And they decided that Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker, Clinton’s handpicked successor, and Clinton’s Whitewater business partners Jim and Susan McDougal were engaged in a $ 3 million fraud scheme and convicted them on twenty-four of thirty felony counts.

Thus the “Arkansas phase” of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation has already reached an important climax, and probably not the last one. We no longer have to rely on the accounts of journalists, or partisans on either side, to understand what went on during the Arkansas years of Bill and Hillary Clinton. A neutral jury has found that the facts, beyond a reasonable doubt, are these: One of the things going on in Arkansas in the 1980s was, quite simply, criminal conspiracy.

This is especially important because Clinton defenders have felt free to dismiss any inquiry into what came after the Arkansas years — at the Clinton White House, Justice Department, Treasury Department, etc. — as baseless and partisan in part because they could point to Whitewater and Arkansas and say, “See? There was nothing there, and there’s nothing here. Only a Republican could think differently.”

One of the problems of “Whitewater” is that partisan speculation has indeed outstripped known facts, just as the Clinton defenders claim. Conjectures are taken for conclusions, and upon them more conjectures are piled. Some of the more exotic birds of this species have hatched out of the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster. And a small airport in Mena, Ark., has led conservative Republicans to swallow whole various conspiracy charges first levied by the radical leftist Christic Institute. The wilder the charges, the easier it has been to dismiss legitimate investigations, like Starr’s.

To be sure, Starr had already won some guilty pleas — including one from the former No. 3 official at the Justice Department, Webster Hubbell, former law partner of Hillary’s and golf partner of Bill’s. But the Hubbell case was about how he had defrauded his Rose law firm partners by engaging in false billing practices, in which case Hubbell could be considered guilty of victimizing Hillary, not conspiring with her.

If there was nothing wrong going on in and around the Little Rock governor’s mansion, the defenders were saying, there was really no justification for an investigation at all — especially one that was looking into the question of whether there might have been an Arkansas-related coverup inside the Clinton White House. If there was no crime, there could be nothing to cover up except maybe sloppiness and sleaziness. The verdicts last week indicate that there might indeed have been something worth covering up. Real crimes just might call for real obstruction.

There is no reasonable doubt that some kind of obstruction has taken place in the Clinton White House. The smoking gun appeared this year, with the belated discovery of those Rose law firm billing records detailing Hillary’s representation of the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan. The records had been under subpoena for two years; they had been removed from a table in the “book room” on the third floor of the White House residence, placed in a box, and discovered in January only inadvertently by a terrified White House employee. The White House had maintained they were missing or destroyed. Apparently not; one day they were not on the table, a couple days later they were, the employee testified. Whoever put them there had an obligation to turn them over to the appropriate authorities and then make himself or herself available for questioning about the circumstances of possessing them. The failure to do so is a textbook case of obstruction. We just don’t know who did the obstructing.

One thing we do know: Many members of the Clinton inner circle have remarkably faulty memories. When called to testify, they often express an inability to recall details of specific conversations and meetings, or even whether such discussions took place. In some instances where recollections are more specific, they are at odds with more damaging accounts given by people with no stake in the outcome of these investigations. We have learned of the existence of meetings not through any voluntary proffer by the participants, but from documentary evidence — evidence that, like the billing records, has turned up very late in the day, and very possibly incomplete at that. Other documents known to have existed are missing. And stories have shifted and shifted again to accommodate newly disclosed, unimpeachable facts.

Where it all goes is uncertain. But we do have proof of serious crime in Little Rock and an obstruction “crime scene” in the White House. It’s unreasonable to assume that that’s the end of it.

We do know, for example, about a Whitewater-related White House meeting in January 1994 attended by deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes. Just then, pressure was mounting on the White House to appoint a special counsel in the Whitewater matter. At the meeting, Ickes urged that a Clinton loyalist go to Little Rock and debrief Beverly Bassett Schaeffer. Schaeffer was the Arkansas state official who, years before, had approved an unprecedented recapitalization plan for the already ailing Madison Guaranty — the bank represented by Hillary. What legitimate reason could the White House possibly have had to dispatch someone to check out what Schaeffer might tell an independent counsel — even before an independent counsel was appointed?

Hillary has a history of downplaying her work on behalf of Madison Guaranty, at times under oath. She long claimed that the person who brought the S&Es business to the Rose law firm was a young associate named Richard Massey. Massey then told the Senate Whitewater committee he had done no such thing. We now know from the firm’s records that Mrs. Clinton billed Madison for some 50 hours of her time. It’s understandable that she would seek to minimize her role; after all, the failure of the savings and loan cost taxpayers at least $ 70 million. But at what point does damage control degenerate into lying under oath?

We also know that another noteworthy shift in the Clinton inner-circle story came this April, during the Senate testimony of longtime Clinton damage controller and fixer Betsey Wright. Wright shed light on a critical question for Starr — the question of when, exactly, the Clintons first learned of the investigation into the failure of Madison by the Resolution Trust Corporation. The RTC filed its first criminal referral — in which the Clintons are mentioned as possible witnesses — with the Justice Department a few months before the 1992 presidential election. A referral is a confidential document, and this one was obviously potentially explosive because it mentioned the Clintons. But the document and the investigation nevertheless were never brought up in the press during the campaign or, indeed, until much later. It would be reasonable to conclude, therefore, that there was no leak of this confidential information.

Fast-forward to the fall of 1993. Treasury Department officials, who oversaw the RTC, reported that they gave the White House multiple “heads-ups” about the referrals. This set off a flurry of meetings in the White House. Webster Hubbell first learned of the referrals over at the Justice Department around this time, he testified; this quickly led to his recusal from all Madison matters, and the recusal of the Clinton-appointed U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Paula Casey. Hubbell also had in his possession numerous files relevant to the investigation. Around this time, he turned them over to the Clintons’ private lawyer.

So there could have been no obstruction prior to fall 1993, since nobody even knew about the RTC investigation — right? Wrong, or so Wright’s testimony suggests. She told the Senate she actually first heard of an RTC investigation involving the Clintons sometime during the 1992 campaign — a full year earlier.

“I received a call from someone in California,” Wright said, “who had talked to somebody they knew there, a lawyer, who had just returned from a business trip to Kansas City, and while at a cocktail party in Kansas City a woman had mentioned to him that there was a — don’t believe “RTC” was a phrase used, but a referral about an S&L officer which would implicate the Clintons in Arkansas.”

She was hearing lots of rumors, she said, and she tried to check them out. She called a defense lawyer in Little Rock named Bill Wilson (whom Clinton later appointed to the federal bench) and asked him if there was any way to find out more. Wilson said there wasn’t. Wright also testified that she discussed the matter with Hillary. She said the two of them tried to imagine who could be the target of such a probe and were at a loss. It never occurred to them, she testified, that the probe might involve James McDougal — although McDougal had been tried and acquitted in relation to Madison Guaranty already, and although the Whitewater-McDougal-Madison-Clinton connection had been the subject of a lengthy piece months before in the New York Times that threw the campaign into a panic.

Wright couldn’t remember the name of the person who called her, and even that person was at one remove from the cocktail party where the referral was supposedly first discussed. And despite the fact that the rumor was dead accurate and the person to whom it referred, McDougal, was more or less right in front of everybody’s nose, Wright’s investigation of the matter went nowhere. Imagine!

The story is, to be extremely kind, bizarre. But given the Clinton manner of revealing these sorts of things, we can expect that we will soon hear in rather vague terms about discussions the first lady had concerning some sort of criminal referral in which she and her husband came up — long, long before those “heads-ups” to the White House from senior Treasury officials.

Wright and Hillary, at least, knew about and talked about an investigation that actually was underway. Could there have been an effort to obstruct well before the fall of 1993? You bet there could have been, and you can bet Starr is working on exactly this question.

But perhaps the biggest shifts in story line Starr has to deal with do not involve Whitewater, but rather the White House travel office. At the center of the travel office scandal are the conflicting stories told at various times by former White House administrator David Watkins and Hillary Clinton about the May 1993 firing of seven longtime employees of the travel office. Hillary has insisted that her role in the firings was small. Watkins, in statements to the administration’s own internal “investigators,” backed up her story. But earlier this year, a lengthy Watkins memo addressed (but not sent) to then-chief of staff Mack McLarty surfaced in which Watkins told a very different story. In the memo, Hillary’s role in the firings was central: She more or less ordered them, warning Watkins of the consequences of her wrath. And he obeyed, despite his misgivings.

There is no way to square the two accounts. Either Watkins lied in the memo he wrote but kept private, or he and the first lady were untruthful in the statements they made. Starr, for his part, beefed up the prosecutorial staff of his Washington office shortly after taking on the travel office investigation this year.

Clinton’s Arkansas crowd is now in Shakespearean shambles: Webb Hubbell is in jail, the McDougals are going to jail, Jim Guy Tucker has resigned his governorship in preparation for jail, Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan is gone, the Rose law firm is in tatters, and Vincent Foster is dead by his own hand. What went on in Arkansas was a crime, a jury has ruled. What has gone on inside the White House in relation to Arkansas is now increasingly the focus of Kenneth Starr’s work. And Starr has done pretty well so far.