Whitewater's Political Lessons the Uncertain Ethics of Fund-Raising

Article excerpt

TO Republicans, the Whitewater hearings show that Bill Clinton peddled his influence as governor of Arkansas and then tried to cover his tracks once he became president. To Democrats, they're a senseless political smear job.

But beyond the partisanship that has colored these hearings over the last four weeks, the Whitewater case has at times provided some valuable insights.

If nothing else, Whitewater demonstrates the lengths that a budding politician, in this case Mr. Clinton, has to go to raise money - and how difficult it can be to walk the fund-raising trail without tripping any ethical land mines.

As much as President Clinton is on trial here, says Ellen Miller, president of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, so should be the current freewheeling system of campaign finance in American politics.

"I've always said that from the beginning, Whitewater was all about money," Ms. Miller says. The current system of private campaign finance, she adds, "can corrupt even the candidates who swear they will never be corrupted."

The Whitewater affair began 17 years ago when then-governor Clinton and his wife, Hillary, joined forces with Arkansas businessman James McDougal to buy a tract of land on the White River in the Ozarks. The partners paid for the property with $200,000 in bank loans and began advertising the site as an ideal place to build a home.

Republicans contend that in the following years, Mr. McDougal illegally transferred funds from Madison Guaranty - a savings and loan he owned until the government closed it in 1989 - in a futile attempt to keep the Whitewater venture afloat. They also suggest that the Clintons' knew about these shady dealings, and engaged in some of their own: particularly doing political favors for McDougal and other business associates, who, in turn, helped pay off some of their campaign debts.

"In a nutshell," says Iowa Rep. Jim Leach (R) who chairs the House hearings, "Whitewater is about the arrogance of power: conflicts of interest that are self-evidently unseemly."

Indeed, the possibility of conflicts of interest in the Whitewater case are not hard to imagine. For years, McDougal served as an economic development advisor to Governor Clinton and used his name as a reference in business deals. Meanwhile, there are several records of McDougal paying off large chunks of Clinton's debt.

FOR sure, Miller says, the Clintons were involved in complicated financial dealings with McDougal and others in which their political influence may have played a role. …