Vice President Al Gore said yesterday President Clinton has the “right” to seek government reimbursement for his legal expenses in the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky investigations, but added he would not make such a request if he were president.
In an interview yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mr. Gore kept insisting Mr. Clinton has denied he and the first lady will ask for tax dollars to pay for more than $5 million in legal bills.
But neither White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart nor the president’s attorney, David E. Kendall, has completely ruled out that option in statements to the press over the past few days.
Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, told The Washington Times yesterday he was “surprised” by the vice president’s comments. “But I assume he knows what he’s talking about,” the congressman said.
White House spokeswoman Nanda Chitre seemed taken aback when asked about Mr. Gore’s remarks and declined comment. Several hours later, she said she could provide no statement beyond the one Mr. Lockhart made Saturday: “It’s entirely premature to discuss the issue. The president has a legal trust to raise money to pay his legal bills.”
The independent counsel’s office and many members of Congress will challenge any efforts by the Clintons to have their legal bills paid by the government. They argue that much of the cost of the independent counsel’s probes, including the Clintons’ still-unpaid legal fees, were the result of Mr. Clinton’s own delaying tactics.
Former Sen. Bill Bradley, Mr. Gore’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination for president, said he, too, would oppose such a move.
“You know, we went through a lot over the last year with impeachment. And while I don’t think that what the president did reached the level of impeachment … any time the president lies to the people, he squanders the people’s trust and undermines his own authority,” Mr. Bradley said on “Meet the Press.”
“This was a sad time for our country, and I don’t think that the taxpayers should pay for the consequences of that act,” the New Jersey Democrat said.
Another Democrat, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, interviewed on “Fox News Sunday,” said: “Former Presidents Reagan and Bush were reimbursed for [their legal fees from] Iran-Contra. I leave it up to Mr. and Mrs. Clinton if they want to take this one on.”
Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, said on Fox, “It’s going to be pretty tough [for them] to get reimbursement.”
The independent counsel statute part of the 1978 Ethics in Government Act allows the government to pay lawyers’ fees for targets of investigations who are not indicted and who would not have needed an attorney “but for the independent counsel statute.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr said it’s not clear if the Clintons would qualify for public reimbursement of their legal costs. There is debate over whether impeachment is tantamount to indictment.
Mr. Starr said “it’s absolutely clear” that Congress, in passing the independent counsel law, felt criminal issues involving a president should be handled through the impeachment process, rather than an indictment.
“But the statute then doesn’t speak to the attorneys’ fees issues that flow from that dichotomy between impeachment, on the one hand, and a criminal charge on the other,” he said.
Should the president and his lawyer decide to apply for such reimbursement, Mr. Starr said, there would still be “issues with respect to the appropriateness of the fees” to be resolved.
The former federal prosecutor said Mr. Clinton would not be setting any legal precedents, regardless of the route he takes in this matter.
“This is essentially a judgment call by the president himself, advised by his counsel, as to what’s … proper for him… . It will not be a legal precedent, regardless of what he does,” said Mr. Starr.