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The Whitewater controversy (also called the Whitewater scandal, or simply Whitewater) began with investigations into the real estate investments of Bill and Hillary Clinton and their associates, Jim and Susan McDougal, in the Whitewater Development Corporation, a failed business venture in the 1970s and 1980s.
A March 1992 New York Times article published during the U.S. presidential campaign reported that the Clintons—then governor and first lady of Arkansas—had invested and lost money in the Whitewater Development Corporation. The article stimulated the interest of L. Jean Lewis, a Resolution Trust Corporation investigator who was looking into the failure of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, owned by McDougal. She looked for connections between the savings and loan company and the Clintons, and on September 2, 1992, she submitted a criminal referral to the FBI naming Bill and Hillary Clinton as witnesses in the Madison Guaranty case. Little Rock U.S. Attorney Charles A. Banks and the FBI determined that the referral lacked merit, but she continued to pursue it. Between 1992 and 1994 she issued several additional referrals against the Clintons and repeatedly called the U.S. Attorney's Office in Little Rock and the Justice Department about the case. Her referrals eventually became public knowledge, and she testified before the Senate Whitewater Committee in 1994.
David Hale, the source of criminal allegations against the Clintons, claimed in November 1993 that as governor of Arkansas, Clinton had pressured him into providing an illegal $300,000 loan to Susan McDougal, the Clintons' partner in the Whitewater land deal. Clinton supporters regarded Hale's allegations as questionable, as Hale had not mentioned Clinton in reference to this loan during the original FBI investigation of Madison Guaranty in 1989; only after coming under indictment for this in 1993 did Hale make allegations against the Clintons.
A U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation did result in convictions against the McDougals for their role in the Whitewater project, but the Clintons themselves were never prosecuted, as three separate inquiries found insufficient evidence linking them with the criminal conduct of others related to the land deal. Bill Clinton's successor as Governor, Jim Guy Tucker, was also convicted and served time in prison for his role in the fraud. Susan McDougal later served 18 months in prison for contempt of court for refusing to answer any questions relating to Whitewater, and was later granted a pardon by President Clinton just before leaving office.
The term Whitewater is also sometimes used to include other controversies from the Bill Clinton administration, especially those such as Travelgate, Filegate, and the circumstances surrounding Vince Foster's death, that were investigated by the Whitewater independent counsel.
Bill Clinton had known Arkansas businessman and political figure Jim McDougal since 1968, and had made a previous small real estate investment with him in 1977. Clinton and Hillary Rodham were seeking ways of supplementing his salary of $26,500 as Arkansas Attorney General (which would rise to $35,000 if his campaign for Governor of Arkansas succeeded) and hers of $24,500 as Rose Law Firm associate. It was around this time that Rodham also began trading cattle futures.
In spring of 1978, McDougal proposed that Clinton and Rodham join him and his wife Susan in buying 230 acres (0.93 km2) of undeveloped land along the south bank of the White River near Flippin, Arkansas, in the Ozark Mountains. The goal was to subdivide the site into lots for vacation homes, intended for the many people coming south from Chicago and Detroit who were interested in low property taxes, fishing, rafting, and mountain scenery. The plan was to hold the property for a few years and then sell the lots at a profit.
The four borrowed $203,000 to buy land, and subsequently transferred ownership of the land to the newly created Whitewater Development Corporation, in which all four participants had equal shares; Susan McDougal chose the name "Whitewater Estates"; their sales pitch was, "One weekend here and you'll never want to live anywhere else." The business was incorporated on June 18, 1979.
This period featured high interest rates in general, and by the time these lots were surveyed and thus available for sale at the end of 1979, rates had climbed to near 20 percent. Prospective buyers could no longer afford to buy vacation homes. Rather than take a loss on the venture, the four decided to hold on, building a model home and hoping for better economic conditions.
During the next several years, Jim McDougal asked the Clintons for checks for various interest payments on the loan or other expenses; the Clintons later claimed to have no knowledge of the uses of these contributions. Concurrently, Jim McDougal had lost his job as the governor's economic aide when Bill Clinton failed to win re-election in 1980. McDougal decided to go into banking instead, and then acquired the Bank of Kingston in 1980 and the Woodruff Savings & Loan in 1982 renaming them the Madison Bank & Trust and the Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, respectively.
In spring 1985, McDougal held a fundraiser at Madison's office in Little Rock that paid off Clinton's remaining 1984 gubernatorial campaign debt of $50,000. McDougal raised $35,000, and of that Madison cashier's checks accounted for $12,000.
In 1985, Jim McDougal set his sights on investment into local residential construction, labeling the project Castle Grande. The 1,000 acres (4 km²), located south of Little Rock, were priced at about $1.75 million, more than McDougal could afford on his own: due to financial laws, McDougal could borrow at most $600,000 from his own savings and loan, Madison Guaranty. McDougal subsequently involved several others to produce the additional funds. Among these was Seth Ward, an employee of the bank, who helped funnel the additional $1.15 million required. To avoid potential investigations, the money was moved back and forth among several other investors and intermediaries. Hillary Clinton, then an attorney at Little Rock-based Rose Law Firm, provided legal services to Castle Grande.
In 1986, their scheme was unveiled by federal regulators who realized that all of the necessary funds for this real estate venture had come entirely from Madison Guaranty; regulators called Castle Grande a sham. In July of that year, McDougal resigned from Madison Guaranty. Seth Ward fell under investigation, along with the lawyer who helped him draft the agreement. Castle Grande earned $2 million in commissions and fees for McDougal's business associates, as well as an unknown amount of legal fees by Hillary Clinton's law firm, but in 1989 it collapsed, at a cost to the government of $4 million. This in turn helped trigger the 1989 collapse of Madison Guaranty, which federal regulators then had to take over. Taking place in the midst of the nationwide savings and loan crisis, the failure of Madison Guaranty cost the United States $73 million.
The Clintons lost between $37,000 and $69,000 on their Whitewater investment, a lesser amount than the McDougals lost, for reasons unclear in the media reports. The White House and the President's supporters claimed that they were exonerated by the Pillsbury Report, a $3 million study done for the Resolution Trust Corporation by the Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro law firm at the time that Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan was dissolved. In this report it was shown that James McDougal, who had set up the deal, was the managing partner, and Clinton was a passive investor in the venture. Charles Patterson, lead attorney from Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro on the investigation, refuted the White House's claim, stating that "It was not our purpose to vindicate, castigate, exculpate". The President's critics cited the unequal capital contributions by the Clintons and McDougals as evidence that then-Governor Clinton was to contribute in other ways.
During Bill Clinton's first bid for the presidency in 1992, he was asked by New York Times reporters about the failure of the Whitewater development, which Bill Clinton and Jim McDougal had originally purchased in 1978. The subsequent New York Times article, by reporter Jeff Gerth, appeared on March 8, 1992.
Within hours of the death of Vince Foster in July 1993, chief White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum removed documents, some of them concerning the Whitewater Development Corporation, from Foster's office and gave them to Maggie Williams, Chief of Staff to the First Lady. According to the New York Times, Williams placed them in a safe in the White House for five days before turning them over to their personal lawyer.
As a result of the exposé in the New York Times, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the failed Whitewater deal. Media pressure continued to build, and on April 22, 1994, Hillary Clinton gave an unusual press conference under a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the State Dining Room of the White House, to address questions on both Whitewater and the cattle futures controversy; it was broadcast live on several networks. In it she claimed that the Clintons had a passive role in the Whitewater venture, and had committed no wrongdoing, but admitted her explanations had been vague and that she no longer opposed appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the matter. Afterwards she won media praise for the manner in which she conducted herself during this, her first adversarial press conference; Time called her "open, candid, but above all unflappable...the real message was her attitude and her poise. The confiding tone and relaxed body language...immediately drew approving reviews". By that time there was growing backlash from Democrats and other members of the political left against the press' investigations of Whitewater, with the New York Times coming in for special criticism by Gene Lyons of Harper's Magazine, who felt its reporters were exaggerating the significance and possible impropriety of what they were uncovering.
At Clinton's request, Attorney General Janet Reno appointed a special prosecutor Robert B. Fiske to investigate the legality of the Whitewater transactions in 1994. Two allegations surfaced: 1) that Clinton had exerted pressure on an Arkansas businessman, David Hale, to make a loan that would benefit him and the owners of Madison Guaranty; and 2) that an Arkansas bank had concealed transactions involving Clinton's gubernatorial campaign in 1990. In May 1994, Independent Counsel Robert Fiske issued a grand jury subpoena to the President and his wife for all documents relating to Madison Guaranty, with a deadline of 30 days. They were reported as missing by the Clintons. Almost two years later, the subpoenaed billing records of the Rose Law Firm, which Hillary Clinton worked for, were discovered in the Clintons' private residence in the White House by a staffer in January 1996.
The Clintons claimed to have been cleared of all wrongdoing in two reports prepared by the San Francisco law firm of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro for the Resolution Trust Corporation, which was overseeing the liquidation of Madison Guaranty. Charles Patterson, lead attorney for Pillsbury, Madison refuted that claim, stating that "It was not our purpose to vindicate, castigate, exculpate".
In August 1994, Kenneth Starr was appointed by a three-judge panel to continue the Whitewater investigation, replacing Robert B. Fiske, who had been specially appointed by the Attorney General, prior to the re-enactment of the Independent Counsel law. Fiske was replaced because he had been chosen and appointed by Janet Reno, Clinton's Attorney General, creating an apparent conflict of interest.
David Hale, the key witness against President Clinton in Starr's Whitewater investigation, alleged in November 1992 that Clinton, while governor of Arkansas, pressured him to provide an illegal $300,000 loan to Susan McDougal, the partner of the Clintons in the Whitewater deal.
Hale's defense strategy, as proposed by attorney Randy Coleman, was to present himself as the victim of high-powered politicians who forced him to give away all of the money. This self-caricature was undermined by testimony from November 1989, wherein FBI agents investigating the failure of Madison Guaranty had questioned Hale about his dealings with Jim and Susan McDougal, including the $300,000 loan. According to the agents' official memorandum of that interview, Hale described in some detail his dealings with Jim Guy Tucker (then an attorney in private practice, later Bill Clinton's lieutenant governor), both McDougals, and several others, but never mentioned Governor Bill Clinton. Nor did Clinton's name come up when Hale testified at McDougal's 1990 trial, which ended in an acquittal.
Clinton denied that he pressured Hale to approve the loan to Susan McDougal. By this time, Hale had already pleaded guilty to two felonies and secured a reduction in his sentence in exchange for his testimony against Clinton from prosecutors. Charges were made by Clinton supporters that Hale had received numerous cash payments from representatives of the so-called Arkansas Project, a $2.4 million campaign established to assist in Hale's defense strategy, and to investigate Clinton and his associates between 1993 and 1997. These charges were subsequently the topic of a separate investigation by former Department of Justice investigator Michael E. Shaheen Jr. Shaheen filed his report in July 1999 to Starr, who summarized the findings in that there was insufficient evidence of Hale having been paid in hopes of influencing his testimony, with such allegations being "unsubstantiated or, in some cases, untrue", and that no charges would be brought against Hale or Arkansas Project outlet The American Spectator. Writers from Salon complained that the full, 168-page, unleaked report had not been made public, a complaint still being reiterated by Salon, as of 2001.
The state prosecutors went ahead and signed an arrest warrant against Hale in early July 1996. Criminal charges filed by the state prosecutors charged that Hale had made misrepresentations to the state insurance commission regarding the solvency of an insurance company that he had owned, National Savings Life. The prosecutors also alleged in court papers that Hale had made those misrepresentations to conceal the fact that he had looted the insurance company. Hale said that any infraction was a technicality and that no one lost any money. In March 1999, Hale was convicted of the first charge, with the jury recommending a 21-day jail sentence.
Starr drafted an impeachment referral to the House of Representatives in the fall of 1997, alleging that there was "substantial and credible evidence" that Clinton might have committed perjury regarding Hale's allegations.
Theodore B. Olson, who with several associates, launched the plan that later became known as known as the "Arkansas Project", wrote several essays for The American Spectator, accusing Clinton and many of his associates of wrongdoing. The first of those pieces appeared in February 1994, alleging a wide variety of criminal offenses by the Clintons and others, including Webster Hubbell. These allegations led to the discovery that Hubbell, a Hillary Clinton friend and former Rose Law Firm partner, had committed multiple frauds, mostly against his own firm. Hillary Clinton, instead of being complicit in Hubbell's crimes, had been among his victims. In December 1994, one week after Hubbell pleaded guilty to mail fraud and tax evasion, Associate White House Counsel, Jane C. Sherburne, created a "Task List" which included a reference to monitoring Hubbell's cooperation with Starr. Hubbell was later recorded in prison saying "I need to roll over one more time" regarding the Rose Law firm lawsuit. In his next court appearance, he pleaded the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination (see United States v. Hubbell).
In February 1997, Starr announced he would leave the investigation to pursue a position at the Pepperdine University School of Law. However, he "flip flopped" in the face of "intense criticism", and new evidence of sexual misconduct.
By April 1998, diverted to some degree by the burgeoning Lewinsky scandal, Starr's investigations in Arkansas were winding down, with his Little Rock grand jury about to expire in the following month. Hubbell, Jim Guy Tucker, and Susan McDougal had all refused to cooperate with Starr. Tucker and McDougal were later pardoned by President Clinton. When the Arkansas grand jury did conclude its work in May 1998, after 30 months in panel, it came up with only a contempt indictment against Susan McDougal. Although she refused to testify under oath regarding the Clintons' involvement in Whitewater, Susan McDougal did make the case in the media that the Clintons had been truthful in their account of the loan, and had cast doubt on her former husband's motives for cooperating with Starr. She also claimed that James McDougal felt abandoned by Clinton, and told her "he was going to pay back the Clintons". She also claimed to the press, again not under oath, that her husband had told her that Republican activist and Little Rock lawyer, Sheffield Nelson, was willing to "pay him some money" for talking to the New York Times about Clinton, and in 1992, he told her that, in fact, one of Clinton's political enemies was paying him to tell the New York Times about Whitewater.
From the beginning, Susan McDougal charged that Starr offered her "global immunity" from other charges, if she would cooperate with the Whitewater investigation. McDougal told the jury that refusing to answer questions about the Clintons and Whitewater wasn't easy for her, or her family. "It's been a long road, a very long road...and it was not an easy decision to make", McDougal told the court. McDougal refused to answer any questions while under oath, leading to her being imprisoned by the judge for civil contempt of court for the maximum 18 months, including eight months in isolation. Starr's subsequent indictment of McDougal for criminal contempt of court charges resulted in a jury hung 7-5, in favor of acquittal. President Clinton later pardoned her, shortly before leaving office.
In September 1998, Independent Counsel Starr released the Starr Report, concerning offenses alleged to have been committed by President Clinton, as part of the Lewinsky scandal. As it dealt exclusively with the Lewinsky scandal, it mentioned Whitewater only in passing, save for a glancing reference that longtime Clinton friend and advisor, Vernon Jordan, had both tried to find Monica Lewinsky a job after her removal from the White House internship and tried to help Webster Hubbell financially with "no-show" consulting contracts, while he was under pressure to cooperate with the Whitewater investigations. Indeed, it was on this basis that Starr took on the Lewinsky investigation, under the umbrella of the Whitewater Independent Counsel mandate in the first place.
There was much acrimony from the most fervent critics of the Clintons, after release of the Starr report on the Foster matter and after Starr's departure and return to the case. The death of Foster had been the source of many conspiracy theories. Christopher Ruddy, a reporter for Clinton critic Richard Mellon Scaife's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, helped fuel much of this speculation with claims that Starr had not pursued this line of inquiry far enough.
On January 26, 1996, Hillary Clinton testified before a grand jury concerning her investments in Whitewater. This was the first time in American history that a First Lady had been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury. She testified that they never borrowed any money from the bank, and denied having caused anyone to borrow money on their behalf. Over the course of the investigation, fifteen individuals—including Jim and Susan McDougal, White House counsel Webster Hubbell, and Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker—were convicted of federal charges. Other than Jim McDougal, none of the convicted agreed to cooperate with the Whitewater investigators, and Clinton pardoned four of them in the final hours of his presidency (see list of people pardoned by Bill Clinton).
Parallel to the Independent Counsel track, both houses of the United States Congress had been investigating Whitewater and holding hearings on it. The House Committee on Financial Services had been scheduled to begin hearings in late March 1994, but they were postponed a couple of days before after an unusually angry written communication from Democratic Banking Committee chair Henry B. Gonzalez to Republican Jim Leach in which he called Leach "obstinate", "obdurate", "in willful disregard" of House etiquette, and "premeditatedly" plotting a "judicial adventure". The House Banking Committee did then begin its hearings in late July 1994.
The Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee also began hearings on Whitewater in July 1994; these intensified in May 1995, following the Republican gain of control, when the Special Whitewater Committee was formed, with Republican Banking Committee chairman Al D'Amato also being chairman of the special committee and Michael Chertoff being chief counsel. The committee's hearings were much more extensive than those held previously by the Democrats, running for 300 hours over 60 sessions across 13 months, taking over 10,000 pages of testimony and 35,000 pages of depositions from almost 250 people; many of these marks were records. The hearings' testimony and senatorial lines of investigation mostly followed partisan lines, with Republicans investigating the President and the Democrats defending him. The Senate Special Whitewater Committee issued an 800-page majority report on June 18, 1996, which only hinted at one possible improper action by President Clinton, but spoke of the Clinton Administration as "an American presidency [of having] misused its power, circumvented the limits on its authority and attempted to manipulate the truth". The First Lady came in for much stronger criticism, as she was "the central figure" in all aspects of the alleged wrongdoings. The Democratic minority on the Committee derided these findings as "a legislative travesty", "a witch hunt", and "a political game".
On November 19, 1998, Independent Counsel Starr testified before the House Judiciary Committee in connection with the Impeachment of Bill Clinton over charges related to the Lewinsky scandal. Here, Starr said that in late 1997 he had come close to preparing an impeachment report related to Whitewater, in particular related to the fraudulent $300,000 loan to Susan McDougal, and to whether the President had testified truthfully regarding the loan. Starr said that he held back the charges due to not being sure of the truthfulness of two major witnesses, but that the investigation was still ongoing. Regarding the reappearance of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Rose Law Firm billing records in the White House residential section, Starr said the investigation had found no explanation for the disappearance or the reappearance: "After a thorough investigation, we have found no explanation how the billing records got where they were or why they were not discovered and produced earlier. It remains a mystery to this day." Starr also chose this occasion to completely exonerate President Clinton of any wrongdoing in the Travelgate and Filegate matters; Democrats on the committee immediately criticized Starr for withholding these findings, as well as the Whitewater one, until after the 1998 Congressional elections.
Ultimately the Clintons were never charged, but 15 other persons were convicted of more than 40 crimes, including Bill Clinton's successor as Governor, who was removed from office.
In March 1992, during his presidential campaign, the Clintons acknowledged that on their 1984 and 1985 tax returns, they had claimed improper tax deductions for interest payments made by the Whitewater Development Company and not them personally. Due to the age of mistake, the Clintons were not obligated to make good the error, but Bill Clinton announced that they would nonetheless do so.
Deputy White House counsel Vince Foster looked into this matter, but did not take any action before his death. Almost two years from the original announcement passed before, on December 28, 1993, the Clintons did make this reimbursement payment, for $4,900, to the Internal Revenue Service. This was done just before Justice Department investigators started seeking the Clintons' Whitewater files. The payment was made without filing an amended return (possibly because the three-year period for amended return filing had passed), but did include full interest on the amount in error, including the additional two-year delay. The Whitewater files in question, publicly released in August 1995, cast some doubt on the Clintons' assertions in the matter, as they showed that the couple were aware that the interest payments in question were by the Whitewater corporation and not them personally.
Kenneth Starr's successor as Independent Counsel, Robert Ray, released a report in September 2000 that stated "This office determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that either President or Mrs. Clinton knowingly participated in any criminal conduct." Ray nonetheless criticized the White House in a statement regarding the release of the report, saying delays in the production of evidence and "unmeritorious litigation" by the president's lawyers severely impeded the investigation's progress, leading to a total cost of nearly $60 million. Ray's report effectively closed the Whitewater investigation.
Bill and Hillary Clinton never visited the actual Whitewater property. In May 1985, Jim McDougal had sold the remaining lots of the failed Whitewater Development Corporation to local realtor Chris Wade. By 1993, there were a few occupied houses on the site, but mostly just "For Sale" signs; after swarms of Whitewater reporters made the trek there, one owner hung a sign saying "Go Home, Idiots." By 2007, there were about 12 houses in the subdivision, with the last lot up for sale by son Chris Wade, Jr., for $25,000. In Flippin, Jim McDougal's savings and loan bank had been replaced by a variety of small businesses, most recently a barbershop.
The length, expense, and results of the Whitewater investigations turned the public against the Office of the Independent Counsel; even Kenneth Starr was opposed. In particular, Democrats portrayed Whitewater as a political witch-hunt, much as Republicans had at the end of the 1980s Iran-Contra investigations. As such, the Independent Counsel law expired in 1999. Indeed, no one ended up happy with the Whitewater investigation; Democrats felt that the investigation was a political witch-hunt, Republicans were frustrated that both Clintons had escaped formal charges, and those without partisan involvement found press coverage of Whitewater, which spanned four decades, difficult to understand.