Worse Than Drudge

Politics and policy.
Feb. 28 1998 3:30 AM

Worse Than Drudge

What game is Joe diGenova playing?

Clinterngate entered its baroque phase Sunday, when Joseph diGenova, a prominent Washington lawyer who has been one of the most incontinent television commentators on the scandal, appeared on Meet The Press. In a tone of quivering outrage, diGenova announced that he had received a tip from a reporter that diGenova and his wife, Victoria Toensing (who is also his law partner), were the targets of a private investigator connected to the Clinton White House.

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There is no evidence for this. But it has now been widely reported--as an allegation by diGenova. Sunday and Monday, White House spokesman Mike McCurry denied it. Tuesday, Clinton's lawyers David Kendall and Robert Bennett issued a statement saying that while Terry Lenzner, a professional investigator, was working with them, "We have not investigated, and are not investigating, the personal lives of Ms. Toensing, Mr. diGenova, prosecutors, investigators, or members of the press." DiGenova interprets the phrase "personal life" as Clintonian fancy footwork and thus as confirmation of his charge. "The White House lied about it on Sunday, they lied about it Monday and they lied about it yesterday," diGenova said in a telephone interview. "Mike McCurry lied and he did it well. That's his job. But the rest of us don't have to believe this crap."

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Why would the White House be investigating Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing? DiGenova says he is at a loss to explain, since he and his wife have been "very fair" to the president in their scores of recent appearances on programs including Rivera Live and Crossfire. TV bookers love diGenova because he is a former prosecutor who goes for the sound bite, and also because he is a former independent counsel himself. Between 1992 and 1995, he looked into charges that Bush administration officials instigated an improper search of Bill Clinton's passport files during the 1992 campaign. (And largely exonerated the accused. Imagine how Republicans would howl if a Democratic independent counsel let a Democratic administration off the hook.) Though both diGenova and Toensing are Republicans who are hostile to Clinton and supportive of Kenneth Starr, they usually argue against the independent-counsel law in general.

But diGenova is being disingenuous in pretending he has no idea why anyone would be interested in him. If the Clinton team has investigated diGenova and Toensing, it might be because the couple seems to act as a conduit for leaks from Starr's office. Starr is using his subpoena power to investigate anti-Starr leaks from the Clinton camp. What would be so terrible if the Clintonites were investigating Starr's anti-Clinton leaks? Those leaks may be illegal and violate the president's rights. Clinton's lawyers have every justification for trying to track them down.

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I f Starr wanted to use an intermediary, diGenova would be a good bet. He is a friend of several members of Starr's staff and is especially close to Starr's chief deputy, Hickman Ewing, with whom he served as a U.S. attorney during the Reagan administration. DiGenova has longstanding relationships with reporters, dating from his days as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. One could legitimately describe either diGenova or Toensing as a "Washington lawyer knowledgeable about the investigation," newspapers' favorite leaker ID. There is no proof that either has served as a cutout for Starr. But if they haven't, why do they qualify as a "source" about anything? In fact, the unreliable gossip they sometimes pass on makes the notorious Matt Drudge look discreet.

One gets a glimpse of Joe and Vicky's peculiar role in the fiasco that occurred in late January, when the Dallas Morning News reported, then retracted, then semi-reasserted that a Secret Service witness to a Clinton-Lewinsky encounter was prepared to testify. To recap: On the evening of Monday, Jan. 26, the paper published a report on its Web site. It quoted a lawyer "familiar with the negotiations" as saying there was a Secret Service agent who had seen Clinton and Lewinsky in a "compromising situation" and that he had become a government witness. Hours later, the paper recanted: "the source for the story, a longtime Washington lawyer familiar with the case, later said the information provided for Tuesday's report was inaccurate." The paper further noted that, "The source is not affiliated with Mr. Starr's office." But the following day, the paper reissued a version of the story. An intermediary for a witness or witnesses who might or might not be a Secret Service agent or agents had told Starr's office about seeing Clinton and Lewinsky in what was now described as an "ambiguous situation." Inexplicably, the story quoted "former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, who is not directly involved in the case," as saying that the intermediary had made contact for the witness or witnesses with Mr. Starr's office. "In essence, your story is correct," diGenova told the paper.

Was the original source also diGenova or Toensing? I think it must have been. Click to find out why.

Whether diGenova was the source or not, we do know that diGenova spoke to the Dallas Morning News on the record, confirming that a witness of some sort did indirectly pass information to Starr's office. And we know that Toensing spoke off the record, contradicting the originally published version. Since diGenova says they weren't representing anyone involved, on what basis did they know? "This is a small Southern town," says diGenova. "People talk to a lot of people. Reporters talk to people. Lawyers talk. You hear things and you pass them on to reporters so that they might investigate. Sometimes people don't investigate the way they should." This sounds almost like an admission, and suggests that Starr's office may be indirectly using journalists to try to substantiate rumors it has heard. In any event, the fact that the Dallas Morning News considered diGenova a legitimate source would suggest that the paper's reporter thought he wasn't just relating third-hand gossip, but had real information from Starr's office.

All this mischief is made much weirder by the fact that diGenova and Toensing are supposed to be presiding over a big investigation themselves. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R.-Mich., the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce (formally Education and Labor Committee) subcommittee on investigations hired the pair in October to investigate corruption in the Teamsters election, including allegations of involvement by the Democratic National Committee. In October, they signed a contract that pays them at the rate of $300,000 a year for 80 hours of work a month each. Committee Democrats objected to this arrangement from the outset. DiGenova and Toensing are lobbyists registered on behalf of several clients including the American Hospital Association. They may be called upon to lobby legislators for whom they also work as committee lawyers. DiGenova says the problem is theoretical and that he and his wife have agreed not to lobby members of the committee they're working for.

And there's more. DiGenova also represents another House committee chairman, Dan Burton, the goofish Indiana Republican. Burton, too, is both investigator and investigatee. He has been looking into the 1996 campaign-finance scandals. Meanwhile, he is being looked into for allegedly putting the arm on a Pakistani lobbyist for campaign contributions.