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Was the Fix Really In?

Clinton pals helped a fallen Hubbell pay bills. But was it hush money?

Michael Weisskopf/Washington

TIME magazine

(TIME, May 4) -- No one knows better than Kenneth Starr that obstruction of justice is difficult to prove. It's one thing to show that President Clinton's aides and friends worked like mad last winter to find a job for Monica Lewinsky. It's quite another to prove that they did so in return for her silence. And in between lies a prosecutor's worst nightmare: a purely circumstantial case.

New documents obtained by TIME in a related case help explain the independent counsel's dilemma, showing at once why Starr has some reason to suspect a White House campaign to keep Webb Hubbell quiet and why any such campaign turned out to be impossible to prove. It has been known for a long time that Clinton's closest associates worked behind the scenes in 1994 to find employment for Hubbell, one of the President's best pals. He had just resigned as Associate Attorney General amid allegations that he bilked clients and his law firm while a Little Rock partner of Hillary Rodham Clinton's--charges that later landed him in jail for 18 months.

Before he went, according to documents from Representative Dan Burton's government-oversight committee, Hubbell took in more than $100,000 in gifts to family trust funds and $600,000 in "work" for which precious little work was done. He was busy at the time, however, resisting pressure from prosecutors to divulge any Whitewater secrets of the Clintons. Now Burton's investigators have the calendar entries, phone records and notes that make up a blueprint for the extraordinary job search that took place as Hubbell remained silent. But is it enough?

The first sign of orchestration came in a note that Mack McLarty, then White House chief of staff, jotted shortly after Hubbell resigned in March. He underlined the word base and the names of three big Democratic donors. Next he wrote "consulting arrangements" and listed Clinton's most trusted advisers--superlawyer Vernon Jordan and then U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor--"to help." As in any good circumstantial case, McLarty's scrawl can be linked at least coincidentally to a result. Within weeks, Hubbell landed $100,000 in consulting work from Ron Perelman's Revlon as well as from Texas businessmen Bernard Rapoport and Truman Arnold. The Revlon job was facilitated by Jordan, he later acknowledged, foreshadowing Jordan's more famous landing of a Revlon job for Lewinsky this past January. McLarty told investigators that he and Jordan felt "empathic" toward Hubbell and moved quickly to find "some opportunities" for him in the private sector.

By June 1994, Hubbell's portfolio swelled with $100,000 more after a series of fortuitously timed meetings. On June 14, Arnold gathered presidential confidants, including Jordan, McLarty and McLarty's senior aide Mark Middleton, for dinner. A week later, Middleton began a flurry of White House sessions with James Riady, head of Indonesia's Lippo conglomerate, and his lieutenant John Huang. Middleton's lawyer Robert Luskin said his client played no role in lining up a Riady payment. On June 23, Riady, who had befriended Clinton years earlier in Arkansas, met Hubbell for breakfast, had a presidential audience at the White House and then saw Hubbell again for lunch. Four days later, Hubbell received $100,000 from Lippo. And on the July 4th holiday, he joined the Clintons at Camp David.

Starr has had a Washington grand jury looking at the same evidence for the past 18 months. Sources tell TIME that Hubbell is more likely to face tax-evasion charges in connection with the payments he received than an indictment for obstruction of justice. McLarty may have put together the network for Hubbell's "base" pay. But to prove obstruction, prosecutors have to establish illegal intent, such as buying silence. There's only one place to get such testimony, and so far all Hubbell's benefactors, including McLarty, say they were motivated only by a desire to help a friend in distress. Last week Starr could add another puzzling fact to his roster: McLarty announced he was leaving the Administration to help his son take over the family car dealership in Arkansas.

The new documents help explain one other thing: why Starr seized so quickly on allegations that Clinton and at least one of his friends involved in the Hubbell job hunt--Jordan--were working on Lewinsky's behalf. And why, given the frustrations of the case against Hubbell, Starr thought he might have finally hooked something bigger. Starr must conclude his grand jury inquiry into Arkansas matters next week, which is one reason why his team deposed Hillary Clinton for five hours on Saturday. Starr himself questioned the First Lady at the White House about a sham real estate deal called Castle Grande, for which she did some legal work in the '80s. She testified about four memos related to that project but denied any wrongdoing.

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