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Who Is Marsha Scott?

Another Arkansas transplant becomes mired in some questionable White House activities

By Karen Tumulty/Washington

TIME magazine

(TIME, March 24) -- When it comes to unraveling a Washington scandal, the best clues often come from the most clueless. They are the bit players so earnestly inept that it is hard to separate what was diabolical from what was merely dumb. So it was in the best Washington tradition that congressional investigators were focusing their attention last week on a former interior designer with a remarkable knack for placing herself near the hot spots of trouble for her old friend, Bill Clinton.

Marsha Scott, the chief of staff in the Presidential Personnel Office, is one of several well-entrenched Clinton aides from Arkansas whose influence and portfolio far outweigh their title. It was Scott who developed a taxpayer-funded database that congressional investigators suspect was used to track political benefactors. She attended 18 of the now famous White House coffees for big givers. Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr is expected to have a few questions about a Los Angeles Times report that she made frequent prison visits to her old school chum Webster Hubbell, who has since announced that he will no longer cooperate with Starr's investigation. And for the darkest conspiracy theorists, there is this fact to chew on: Scott dropped by deputy counsel Vince Foster's office to offer her own friendly counsel the day before he committed suicide.


Scott's name came up again last week, with the release of a pile of memos from 1993 and 1994 in which she outlined ways to court the President's political supporters with visits to the White House mess, special policy briefings, trinkets, White House tours and the like. Of particular interest to congressional investigators is her proposal that the White House also set up "links" with government agencies, so it could obtain "information/resources" for those early supporters--a plan that sounds very much like trading official favors for contributions. Republicans found the documents highly provocative. "When it involves using government assets to aid in the political campaign," says Indiana Congressman David McIntosh, a leader of the House fund-raising probe, "that steps over the line and is, in fact, illegal."

Scott grew up in Arkansas, the daughter of a former Miss Arkansas and an all-American halfback. She met and briefly dated the future President while they were still in their teens, when both were working for the late Senator William Fulbright. Scott was living in Santa Cruz, California, when Clinton decided to run in 1992 and tapped her to manage his Northern California campaign. Her defenders at the White House insist that she is well-intentioned and that her lapses in judgment are merely misguided loyalty. Those inclined to be less charitable say Scott, whose current job carries a six-figure salary, is not particularly sophisticated and got carried away with her own self-importance. It is a measure of her personal closeness with the Clintons that neither camp is willing to be quoted on the record.

Scott's proposals for what is known as donor servicing, which she explicitly characterized as an effort to build a base for the 1996 campaign, were so outrageous that the White House did not bother to try to defend them. Presidential spokesman Michael McCurry showed his disdain from the briefing room podium, where he described Scott as "quite voluble" and added, "I think Marsha Scott may have had many dreams, but the important thing is what happened."

Congressional investigators agree--and they are tantalized by the possibilities. Given the fact that the White House actually built Scott's database, they say, it is logical to question whether it carried out the rest of her plan. McCurry argued that a memo from then director of administration David Watkins had stipulated that the computer file was not to be used for political purposes--although the fact that Watkins was subsequently forced to resign for misuse of government property did not help the press secretary's case. For her part, Scott seemed unfazed by either Watkins' warning or a similar one from the White House counsel's office; her most damaging memos were written months after theirs.

In her pleas for support and cooperation from top White House officials, Scott frequently invoked the First Couple, writing then deputy chiefs of staff Erskine Bowles and Harold Ickes, for instance, that her project "is the President's idea and it is a good one." Such heavy name-dropping has irked many of her White House colleagues, starting from her first day as head of the Office of Correspondence. At her initial meeting with the veteran staff, some of whom had answered letters for John Kennedy, Scott announced, "I was Bill's girlfriend from our hippie days."

Washington has been hard on the Arkansas transplants, both the diabolical and the dippy. One has gone to jail. Others have gone back home. The rest still work in the White House behind what amounts to almost permanent presidential protection. But given the Clintons' tendency to cut friends loose when they become a problem, Marsha Scott may not be able to count on that protection for long.

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