This Week

Issue: "Reno Under Fire," April 26, 1997

Washington ticket fixers

Their snowmobiles broken down, former auto-racing star Bobby Unser and a friend trudged for two days through deep snow and a December blizzard along the Colorado-New Mexico border looking for help. After 18 more hours of walking, the two came upon a barn and some welcome warmth. There, they called for help. Eventually they were rescued, but also subpoenaed. The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner faces a June 11 trial in Denver on a federal misdemeanor charge of driving a snowmobile in a wilderness area. Mr. Unser-unwittingly, he says-stands accused of violating the Wilderness Act of 1964 and could be looking at six months in prison and a $5,000 fine. Mr. Unser testified to Congress last week that the U.S. Forest Service, which is hauling him into court, is &quotworse than the KGB in Russia" for prosecuting him. &quotThe value of human life has to be worth more than the enforcement of an alleged technical violation of the law." Environmental activist Darrell Knuffke sniffed, &quotHe should not expect U.S. senators to fix his ticket for him." Apparently the Indy speedster doesn't know how to get a ticket fixed in Bill Clinton's Washington. The Los Angeles Times reported on April 14 that California developer (and Friend of Bill) Angelo K. Tsakopoulos violated environmental laws but had possible criminal charges against him reduced to what a government memo called a &quothighly favorable" settlement. &quotWe were just stunned," the Times quoted one Environmental Protection Agency staffer familiar with the deal. A month later, Mr. Tsakopoulos cut a $100,000 check to the Democratic National Committee. He gave $65,000 a day before the 1996 election. Times reporters interviewed three former and current EPA officials for their story. Said one staffer, explaining the government's deference to the DNC money man: &quotMr. Tsakopoulos has a direct line to the White House." Indeed he does. Mr. Tsakopoulos was one of the president's 900+ friends to have slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. Moreover, months before the government settlement with him, Mr. T detailed specifically to the president his troubles with the federal bureaucracy during a DNC coffee at the White House. It's all just one more striking example that in this administration, money talks-and Bobby Unser walks.

&quotSick and tired of lying"

Just before White House officials last week appeared before a Little Rock grand jury to answer questions about possible &quothush money," Whitewater felon James McDougal enjoyed the benefits of turning state's evidence. Mr. McDougal on April 14 received a lenient sentence-three years out of a possible 84-in exchange for his assistance to independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Saying he &quotjust got sick and tired of lying" for President Clinton, Mr. McDougal said publicly the president's refusal to pardon his wife Susan (who is sitting in jail on contempt charges for refusing to cooperate with prosecutors) turned him against his old friend. The Clintons, Mr. McDougal said, &quotshould be deeply concerned about [my testimony]." Hillary Clinton on April 17 claimed she wasn't. How useful will Mr. McDougal's testimony be? By himself, the smooth-talking former Arkansas banker is hardly credible. But Mr. Starr, who is usually tight-lipped about his evidence, said Mr. McDougal's story has checked out. Mr. McDougal has led investigators to other evidence-both witnesses and supporting documentation-that &quotindependently corroborates substantial portions of Mr. McDougal's testimony." Testimony from the current and former White House chiefs of staff centers on questions of possible hush money paid to a close Clinton aide. Both Erskine Bowles and Thomas McLarty denied to reporters that they arranged for wealthy Democratic benefactors to hire Webster Hubbell as a means of keeping the former Justice Department official from cooperating with Mr. Starr's probe. Mr. McLarty said he was &quotjust helping a friend in a time of need." Meanwhile, a Washington Post report documented that Mr. Hubbell, the friend in need, had friends indeed-and plenty of them. The newspaper revealed that in the nine months between his resignation from Justice and his guilty plea to fraud, Mr. Hubbell had 70-plus meetings at the White House with more than 20 different administration officials. The Post reporter said she obtained an appointment calendar, telephone message slips, and other supporting documentation for her story.

Newt on the Dole

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House Speaker Newt Gingrich once called Bob Dole &quotthe tax collector for the welfare state." In loaning Mr. Gingrich $300,000, Mr. Dole became the bill collector for the Speaker's ethics case. The vanquished Republican presidential candidate April 17 called his loan an investment in the future of the GOP, helping Mr. Gingrich to pay off his ethics committee plea bargain and putting the scandal behind him. The loan, according to a spokesman for Mr. Gingrich, is at 10 percent interest, compounded annually; it must be repaid in full, and does not require a first payment before the year 2005. Democrats ridiculed the loan as a &quotsweetheart deal." Mr. Gingrich says he cleared it with Ethics Committee leaders.

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