It's cherry blossom time in Washington, D.C., but for some Clinton watchers, the bloom is already off the rose.
Last week, while addressing the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Bill Clinton blew his stack over yet another Whitewater question. He couldn't be expected to remember every little detail from fifteen years ago, the President buffed at assembled editors; he had staffers whose every working minute was consumed with the tedious reconstruction of the past.
But that, of course, is precisely the problem: While this administration is mired in almost ancient history, ifs unable to get on with the business at hand.
Two days later, when some of Clinton's aides--including coiffed cutup George Stephanopoulos and a few fellows who looked too young to drive, much less devise policy to deter drive-by shootings-offered a White House briefing for the alternative press, they allowed as to how it would be refreshing to field questions about real issues. Enough of Whitewater, right?
Not quite. Although the problems of a few little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world-straight from our briefing, we'd join the White House press corps for a discussion in which Bosnia, Haiti and helicopters were the dilemmas du jour--l still wanted to get the administration's stance concerning two Denver attorneys who'd blown the whistle on mismanagement at the Resolution Trust Corporation.
Bruce Pederson and Jackie Taylor had first expressed their concerns before Congress in the fall of 1992; as thanks for this public service, the RTC assigned them to bureaucratic Serbia. The pair, along with ten other whistleblowers (including James Romer, brother of Governor Roy, who'd worked in the Dallas RTC office), returned to Washington to testify before the Senate Banking Commission last September. Acting RTC head Roger Altman promised to investigate the whistleblowers' charges-but since then, Morgan Guaranty, the failed savings and loan owned by former Clinton partner James McDougal, has been the only S&L to catch anyone's attention in D.C. So in early March I again contacted Taylor and Pederson: While the country drowned in Whitewater, I wondered, were real hazards going ignored?
The list that followed was depressingly lengthy. In Texas alone, Taylor estimated, five S&L disasters the size of Silverado are about to boil over. (Much of the whistleblowers' September testimony focused on Texas.) But while the clock ticked,/ormer Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen's Treasury Department actually argued against extending the statute of limitations for S&L prosecutions. And until Whitewater calms down, Altman himself is on hold at the RTC.
When I asked Clinton's aides about the prospects for whistleblowers Pederson and Taylor, whether their case would be swamped by Whitewater, they shifted uneasily. They could do nothing, the aides said. That was another department.
Who's in charge here? Perhaps Ellen Kulka, RTC general counsel, who recently sent this memo to Jackie Taylor. "An article entitled 'Trickle-Down Economics,' authored by Patricia Calhoun, appeared in the March 16, 1994, edition of Westword. This article expressed your dissatisfation, and that of another employee, Bruce Pederson, as to the resolution of an internal agency grievance filed by you and Mr. Pederson, and RTC management decisions and policies. In this context, you made a disparaging remark about Mr. Roger C. Altman, the acting chief executive officer of the Resolution Trust Corporation, and discussed internal agency matters. This article intertwined your personal situations with your opinions concerning the so-called Whitewater investigation.
"I find your commenting to the media on matters of personal concern especially troubling in light of our telephone conversation on this subject. On January 26, 1994, you and Mr. Pederson sought my guidance conceming the appropriateness of responding to media contacts. In this conversation, I expressed clearly to you my long-standing and firm belief that attorneys may not discuss or divulge matters involving their clients without first obtaining the express permission of the clients. You obtained no such permission in this instance.
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"The general principle that attorneys do not discuss client matters with the media absent express client permission is particularly true where matters raised are of more personal interest than of public concern. Your interest in expressing your personal concerns and the lack of Congressional attention to those concerns clearly outweighed matters relating to the public interest in the subject article."
When I contacted them in March, Taylor and Pederson weren't interested in discussing "personal concerns." Although both their grievances had been denied, they planned to fight on--for their jobs and the RTC. And in fact, by the end of the month, U.S. Judge Jim Carrigan would hand them a significant victory, ordering the RTC to waive fees connected to their Freedom of Information Act requests--a decision worth all of 83,000 that the RTC, less than two years from its official dissolution, plans to appeal. Judge Carrigan understood that Taylor's and Pederson's crusade goes beyond the personal: "In light of the public interest in RTC mismanagement, I decline to find that the plaintiffs' personal interest in the requested information undercuts their fee waiver request," he wrote, later noting, "I already have concluded that the public will benefit from disclosure of the information the plaintiffs seek."
Even more dismaying than Kulka's inability to see the public's interest in accusations of RTC mismanagement is her interpretation of lawyer-client privilege. Kulka clearly thinks Taylor's client is the RTC.
Taylor and Pederson think their client is the American taxpayer. And maybe that's where they went wrong.