Open and shut cases
Experts attending a week-long meeting of the National Transportation Safety Board in Baltimore did their best to convince conspiracy theorists that last July's crash of TWA Flight 800 was due to mechanical failure. NTSB officials released thousands of pages of documents, screened several computer animations, and gave frightening new details of the last seconds of the doomed plane. In Paducah, Ky., a much younger investigation also failed to produce evidence of a conspiracy. Although the local sheriff said he believed others knew in advance about the attack, 14-year-old Michael Carneal is now considered the only suspect in the prayer-meeting shooting that killed three high-schoolers. Because he used a firearm to commit a serious felony, Mr. Carneal will be tried as an adult, but Kentucky law forbids the death penalty for anyone under the age of 16.
Iran last week hosted a three-day conference to promote unity among the world's 1 billion Muslims. With delegates from 55 nations in attendance, the meeting was seen as a bid by Iran to regain international stature and to convince its skeptical neighbors-especially Saudi Arabia-that they have nothing to fear from the radical Islamic republic. But speeches by Iran's two highest-ranking leaders left very different impressions of the country's position. Moderate President Mohammed Khatemi, elected last year in an unexpected landslide, called for the protection of religious minorities and urged his fellow leaders to learn from the West. Meanwhile, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the country's supreme leader, blasted the sins of the arrogant West, warned the U.S. to pull its warships out of the "Islamic sea" (Persian Gulf), and insisted that Islam is the world's "only remedial, curative, and savior angel."
The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Tuesday that a divorced father who became a Christian cannot share his newfound beliefs with his children if it alienates them from their Orthodox Jewish mother. A court-appointed guardian found that two of Jeffrey Kendall's three children were suffering "stress" because he was exposing them to Christian teaching while their mother, who gained custody after a 1994 divorce, wanted to raise them in the Jewish faith. The court agreed, ruling that Mr. Kendall cannot take the children to church where they would be told that non-Christians are "destined to burn in hell," in the words of Judge Neil Lynch, who wrote the decision. Mr. Kendall's lawyer denounced the ruling, noting that the court had essentially chosen the mother's religion over the father's. "The court effectively has established a religion for these three children," said Michael Greco. "That's the court intruding where it shouldn't be intruding."
Through the motions
White House officials made it clear last week they'd weighed the pros and cons of defying the Senate and were committed to move ahead with a recess appointment of Bill Lann Lee to become the government's top civil-rights enforcer. President Clinton had debated for weeks with his aides whether to jeopardize his harmonious relationship with Republicans by placing his nominee on the job without Senate approval, possible because Congress is in recess. That was before a letter from Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) warning the president of the political danger he risks in making the recess appointment. Republicans vowed to treat such a move as "a declaration of war," as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) put it. Nevertheless, as decision day neared, White House officials kept up their campaign to pressure Republicans. But it was clear that was merely a pro forma prelude to the recess appointment, which would give Mr. Lee the job without Senate confirmation for two years. "It will allow us to say we tried every which way to do it with regular order," an unidentified White House official told The Washington Post. The philosophical argument over Mr. Lee centers on the nominee's embrace of racial preferences and quotas, which Supreme Court rulings have held are unconstitutional. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said last week "it's time to draw the line" and block the controversial nominee. Democrats blocked a vote on Mr. Lee to become assistant attorney general for civil rights just before Congress adjourned for the year, fearing the nomination would be killed at the committee level.
Presidential Christmas list
President Clinton went Christmas shopping in New York for campaign cash for Democrats and for personal gifts for family and friends. After lunch, he dropped $400 on jewelry and purchased three soft-sided leather briefcases and some trinkets. The president also got three sweaters at cost, and the manager threw in three for free. That night at a $10,000 per couple fundraiser, political donors were even more generous, giving close to $1 million for Democratic candidates. The day before, Mr. Clinton marked the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a speech to a group of diplomats and foreign-policy wonks. As The Washington Post described it, White House spinmeisters billed the 15-minute address as the president's "most comprehensive exposition yet" of his foreign policy views. Mr. Clinton noted "human rights are still at risk from Burma to Nigeria, from Belarus to China." In New York, Mr. Clinton said, "We continue speaking out for human rights without arrogance or apology. As long as America is determined to stand for human rights, then free people all around the world will choose to stand with America." After berating human-rights-abusing nations, Mr. Clinton turned self-critical. Among America's human-rights "challenges," he said, were hate crimes and "continuing discrimination." As a prescription, he made a pitch for a homosexual civil-rights bill, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The Post reported the remark was "not in the prepared text distributed to reporters ahead of time." Prior to the trip, the president met at the White House with newly released Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, which irked Chinese communist officials. Mr. Wei spent about half an hour with the president and met with reporters afterward to provide some details of the chat. He said he warned Mr. Clinton not to be deceived by promises from Chinese communists. Mr. Wei explained to reporters why that warning was necessary: "They can make any promise and go back on any promise." Mr. Wei reported Mr. Clinton "listened and smiled" as the longtime dissident gave his advice.
Environmental delegates from 150 nations meeting in Kyoto, Japan, signed onto a historic-and controversial-pact after working through the night last Wednesday. Designed to reverse the purported global warming trend, the agreement ended 11 days of often bitter debate. President Clinton had earlier vowed to order American companies to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" to their 1990 levels, but European delegates pushed for cuts of 15 percent below those levels. After a one-day appearance by Vice President Gore, U.S. delegates turned more aggressive, eventually agreeing to meet the Europeans halfway: 7 percent reductions from a 1990 baseline. "Developing" countries such as China and India were not held to any binding emissions agreements, though they burn huge quantities of fossil fuels without the "scrubbing" technologies prevalent in the West. The Energy Department has estimated that both industry and consumers will have to reduce energy usage by as much as one-third in order to meet the emissions targets by 2012. President Clinton has promised $1 billion annually for new technology that he says will make those cuts painless, but Republican critics predict nothing but a punitive tax will beat energy-users into submission. They also warn of huge job losses as American companies relocate operations to developing countries where they can escape the energy caps. Two-thirds of the Senate must ratify the Kyoto treaty before it can take effect, something most observers agree is unlikely.
Land of the Freeh
Washington's most poorly kept secret is that FBI director Louis Freeh opposed Janet Reno's decision not to seek an independent counsel in connection with the president's and vice president's fundraising activities. Mr. Freeh acknowledged that opposition before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, in a joint appearance with Ms. Reno in which the two pledged their mutual respect. The attorney general described her relationship with the FBI director as "strong and very amicable." Mr. Freeh said there was no "professional rift" over the independent counsel decision: "That two lawyers disagree should not be surprising." The battle last week was over congressional pursuit of inside details of that not-so-secret secret. Before the Reno-Freeh hearing, the House panel subpoenaed a Nov. 25 memorandum by the FBI director outlining his arguments in favor of an independent counsel. The two rebuffed the subpoena, arguing that to turn it over would jeopardize the Justice Department investigation. The next day, Mr. Freeh appeared before the committee alone. But he brought word from Ms. Reno "that her lawyers would be pleased" to discuss the release of the memo. In his testimony, Mr. Freeh insisted, despite Ms. Reno's decision earlier in the month, "no area of this investigation is closed." The FBI director said that although his gumshoes are not "being impeded," he is frustrated at the slow pace of interviews and fulfillment of document requests from the White House. "I'm not confident we have all the documents yet." Earlier in the week, White House officials illustrated Mr. Freeh's point. They released the 1996 notes-long under subpoena-of a White House aide referring to "the 'money' coffees." According to The New York Times, aide Janis Kearney's notes "recorded discussions to the effect that the election would be over before the Federal Election Commission could look into foreign contributions." Ms. Kearney quoted Leon Panetta, White House chief of staff at the time, as chuckling about Clinton-Gore fundraising plans and noting, "This will certainly help move campaign reform forward." The Times reported that the attorney general reviewed the notes before deciding not to appoint an independent counsel. An editorial in the paper criticized Ms. Reno's "specious" congressional testimony last week and said that had the attorney general been "a more curious prosecutor," she might have regarded references to "money" coffees and the "intentional skirting" of laws regulating campaign fundraising "as fitting into a chain of evidence."
In 1989, federal government officials accepted a plea agreement from three Oklahoma bankers charged in connection with two bank failures; the men paid more than $44,000 in fines and agreed to seek federal authorization before engaging in any future banking activities. Three years later, the three found themselves charged with conspiracy, misusing bank funds, and making false entries-all based on the same conduct that led to the first charge and fine. Is that double jeopardy? The Supreme Court last week, unanimously, said no. Separately, five justices signed an opinion further narrowing the constitutional protection against double jeopardy. Chief Justice William Rehnquist-joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas-said that "only the clearest proof" will require courts to view punitive civil fines as criminal punishment that counts as double jeopardy if accompanied by other criminal charges. Meanwhile, the unanimous court expanded the rights of citizens falsely accused of crimes, rejecting a prosecutor's claim of absolute immunity from lawsuits arising from official actions. In the case from Washington state, a man jailed briefly under suspicion of burglary sued a prosecutor he said filed a false report with a court seeking an arrest warrant. He was cleared of charges the day after his night in jail.
Move over, Rodman
There was no brutal violence like that of The Basketball Diaries--the heroin-chic movie (see p. 22) that may have inspired the Kentucky killing spree--but the real world of pro basketball did provide its own anti-role model last week. Golden State Warriors' Latrell Sprewell, suspended for physically attacking coach P.J. Carlesimo, put on a contrite face for his news conference, even as he appeared with superlawyer Johnnie Cochran. Mr. Sprewell and the NBA are going to arbitration over the league's one-year suspension. Mr. Cochran called the suspension "arbitrary and capricious," and top players said they might boycott this year's All-Star game if the punishment is not reduced.
Making their mark
Michael Podguski, last year a freshman at Chesterton High School in Indiana, entered English class and found a poster showing 10 historical figures believed to be homosexual and these words: "Sexual orientation has nothing to do with the ability to make a mark, let alone make history." Young Mr. Podguski thought the poster had nothing to do with academics, let alone English. He and his parents brought a complaint about teacher Bonney Leckie's agitprop, but last week the school board rebuffed them. "If this poster gets one kid to think, if it gets one child to not categorize or stereotype people, if it gets one kid to not use that derogatory word that we all know, then I think its educational value is inarguable," said school board member Michael Griffin, who could perhaps use a lesson in how "to not" split infinitives. The school board vote was 4-1. Dissenter Dawn Rogers criticized the school board majority for "intruding on parental rights" by undermining the values the Podguskis teach at home.