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web posted July 24, 2000

Judge orders obstruction of justice hearing over missing White House e-mails

A federal judge ordered on July 20 an evidentiary hearing later this month into whether White House officials made false statements to the court or tried to obstruct justice during an investigation into missing White House e-mails.

The order for a July 31 hearing came from U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who is hearing a civil suit involving the e-mails brought by the conservative legal group Judicial Watch.

Critics of the administration have accused the White House of trying to delay the recovery of the e-mails until after the November election because some of the messages might pertain to the ongoing campaign finance investigation of Vice President Al Gore. The White House denies the allegation.

If Lamberth finds evidence that obstruction occurred, he could refer the case to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation or choose to assess various civil penalties himself, according to Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein.

Larry Klayman, the lead attorney for Judicial Watch, said he expects to call White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, Office of Administration Director Mark Lindsay, and other White House officials as witnesses at the hearing.

The White House says the obstruction matter has already been thoroughly investigated.

"This matter was fully reviewed in Congress," White House spokesman Elliot Diringer said. "We're confident the evidence shows that there was no intention to withhold documents or engage in any of the other improper activities alleged."

Lamberth wants to hear testimony about an affidavit filed by Daniel A. Barry -- a White House employee who oversaw the e-mail archive system -- that Judicial Watch says is false. Barry stated that all White House e-mails beginning in July 1994 had been archived in the White House database.

His statement came a month after other White House officials acknowledged certain incoming e-mails -- perhaps hundreds of thousands of e-mails -- were not being archived as of August 1996 due to a computer glitch.

"EOP (Executive Office of the President) apparently corrected this 'computer error' in November 1998, but never notified this court and never started a project to retrieve the e-mails" until Judicial Watch filed a complaint in February, 2000, Lamberth wrote.

The judge is weighing whether to appoint a special master to oversee the reproduction of the e-mails from back up tapes. The White House retrieval effort has been plagued with technical problems it says have prevented any of the e-mails from being reproduced.

Lamberth recently called the White House retrieval effort "preposterous." He also wants to hear evidence about allegations from former White House computer technicians who have said White House officials threatened them with jail if they revealed the existence of the e-mail problem.

Lamberth had held off on the evidentiary hearing because the Justice Department's Criminal Division Campaign Finance Task Force was conducting its own investigation into the matter.

In his order, Lamberth wrote that Justice Department said that an evidentiary hearing could proceed "without threatening the integrity of the criminal investigation."

McCain denies expressing interest in running with Bush

Sen. John McCain has denied telling Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge he is interested in becoming Texas Gov. George W. Bush's vice presidential running mate.

"I did not tell Gov. Ridge that I was interested," McCain said late July 20. "My conversations with Gov. Ridge, however, are private. And there was a private conversation. I've had several, because we are friends."

According to Republican party sources, Ridge called McCain on July 18 to inquire as to his willingness to run on the same ticket with his former primary opponent.

Those sources also said McCain responded that if the governor asked him, he would serve.

However, when pressed for his answer should he receive such a call from Bush, McCain said he would love to talk to the presidential candidate about the "weather, how things are going and how good a campaign he is running."

McCain insisted that there were many other highly qualified people that could serve as vice president. He said it was very unlikely that he was even being considered.

"I have not been vetted, I have not been asked for my tax returns and I don't believe that I'm in the process," said McCain.

He said he believed his previous request not to be considered for the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket would be honored by Bush.

Ridge's call reportedly came in the wake of private indications from the Bush campaign that he himself will not be tapped for the second spot on the GOP ticket.

According to this source, Ridge called the Bush campaign on July 19 to relay McCain's response. While he did not speak with Bush directly, his message from the Arizona senator was "coolly received."

Bush has not given any hints about his plans, other than to say his list is narrow and a decision will come soon.

Special counsel clears U.S. government, blames Davidians in Waco siege

An independent counsel investigating the role of federal agents during the Branch Davidian siege cleared on July 21 the government of wrongdoing in the 1993 disaster near Waco, Texas.

In a preliminary report to the U.S. Justice Department, however, former Sen. John Danforth did fault some federal employees for concealing information.

In the report's most dramatic finding, Danforth said that Davidian leader David Koresh and several other group members were entirely responsible for the incident that claimed more than 80 lives.

"The tragedy at Waco rests with certain Branch Davidians and their leader David Koresh who shot and killed four (government) agents, wounded 20 others, shot at FBI agents trying to insert tear gas into the complex, burned down the complex, and shot at least 20 of their own people, including five children," Danforth's report said.

Koresh and the others died in the raid, which came at the end of a 51-day siege. The standoff began on February 28, 1993, when agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to serve Koresh a warrant. A gunfight erupted, killing four of the agents and six of the cult members.

Last September, when Danforth accepted the role of independent special counsel, he said he would attempt to answer four "dark questions":

Did FBI agents fire guns at the Davidians? (Conclusion: No)
Did the FBI start the fire? (Conclusion: No)
Did the military's involvement in the standoff violate federal law? (Conclusion: No)
Was there a cover-up? (Conclusion: No)

Danforth said the preliminary findings contain 95 percent of the conclusions reached by himself and his team of investigators. "I give you these conclusions with 100 percent certainty," Danforth said at a news conference in St. Louis.

The report said there is no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Attorney General Janet Reno, the present or former directors of the FBI or other top U.S. officials or members of the hostage rescue team, who fired pyrotechnic tear gas at the compound.

"Responsibility for the tragedy at Waco rests with certain of the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh," Danforth said.

"However," he continued, "the investigation revealed that a few government lawyers and an FBI agent did conceal from the public, Congress and the courts that an FBI agent fired three pyrotechnic tear gas rounds."

Danforth said the tear gas was "fired at a construction area about 75 feet from the living quarters of the Branch Davidian complex four hours before the fire and ... did not cause the fire."

"Although the government did nothing evil on April 19, 1993, the failure of some of its employees to fully and openly disclose to the American people the use of pyrotechnic devices undermined public confidence in government and caused real damage to our country," Danforth said.

He issued the report one week after a Texas jury found in a damage suit that federal agents were not to blame for the deaths in the siege and fire.

Reno named Danforth, a former Republican senator from Missouri, as an outside investigator under pressure from members of Congress who claimed there had been a government cover-up.

Senate passes revamped marriage tax repeal

The U.S. Senate on July 21 easily passed a revamped, Republican-led bill meant to repeal the so-called marriage penalty tax, clearing the way for the measure to make its way to President Clinton's desk in time for the GOP convention later this month.

The bill, intended to eliminate the additional income tax paid by many two-income couples within five years, cleared the Senate by a 60-34 vote. The House of Representatives passed the same bill by a 271-156 vote the day before.

"There will be no excuse -- no excuse -- for the president vetoing this bill," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi. "It is targeted. It is effective immediately. It will make a difference for married couples in this country."

Clinton announced later that day that he would veto the bill when it hit his desk.

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