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Congressman Leach Pushes Ahead in Whitewater Inquiry

By Robert Shogan
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

After years of plaguing the leaders of his own party, maverick Republican congressman Jim Leach is emerging as one of President Clinton's most formidable adversaries in the Whitewater affair.

The 51-year-old Iowa lawmaker demonstrated his resolve this week by pushing ahead with a planned House Banking Committee inquiry into the Whitewater tangle. This despite independent counsel Robert Fiske's contention that congressional inquiries could hurt his own probe into possible criminal violations stemming from Whitewater.

The issues of government integrity and abuse of power involved in Whitewater are broader than Fiske's prosecutorial concerns, Leach argued in a letter to Fiske. Earlier, Leach, the ranking Republican member on the committee, predicted in a telephone interview that the hearing, tentatively set for March 24, would be of "blockbuster proportions."

When he began looking into the Whitewater case, Leach said, he felt that nothing more serious was involved than a violation of ethical standards and "the spirit of the law." But now he says: "I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that we have an issue that also relates to the letter of the law."

Coming from Leach, with his reputation for high-minded and well-informed independence built up during 10 terms in the House, such ominous talk is harder for the president and his allies to shrug off than if it had emanated from most other Republicans.

"The reason he (Leach) was able to bring this issue to the front is his high standard of integrity and his expertise in banking," former Iowa Democratic congressman David Nagle says of his onetime colleague. "Even out here in Iowa where Clinton is doing well at the polls, people said if Jim Leach is looking at Whitewater, he should be heard."

"The thing that stuck out about Leach was that he wasn't going to let anybody, even the president of his own party, dictate how he was supposed to represent his own district," recalls Jim Maddy, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters.

Maddy claims that Clinton aides are making a mistake when they respond to Leach's comments about Whitewater by accusing him of excessive partisanship. "This is a person of stature and integrity," says Maddy.

Paul Begala, the Clinton political adviser who has taken on the task of hitting back at what he calls Leach's "innuendo" and "scurrilous rhetoric,"admits to being frustrated by Leach's "Bambi blue eyes and soft-spoken Midwesterner manner" as well as his reputation for integrity.

"I believe Leach deserves the good reputation he has," Begala says. "But I think he is putting all that reputation on the line for the proposition that Bill and Hillary Clinton are crooks."

But Leach's admirers say his concern with Whitewater transcends the fate of the Clintons or any partisan concern and is rooted instead in the reform tradition nurtured in the Upper Midwest, particularly in Leach's native Iowa.

"He gives you the impression of someone who is concerned about the governing process and the ability of this country to survive," said Clark Pellett, another Iowa native and now a Republican ward committeeman in Chicago, after hearing Leach speak on Whitewater at a GOP dinner in the Windy City last week.

Pellett says Leach's 20-minute talk, was "very intellectual and scholarly." During the question period, when asked about Clinton's own involvement in the affair, Pellett recalled, "He said he had to be very clear there isn't any allegation whatsoever against the president or the first lady that has been substantiated."

Leach himself contends his current absorption with Whitewater stems naturally from his longstanding concern with the savings and loan industry. He was early and often in sounding the alarm against the debacle that overtook the S&Ls in the late 1980s. And he does not hesitate to put an ample share of the blame on the shoulders of Reagan administration, for its lax regulatory standards, along with Congress, state regulators and greedy operators of the thrifts.

In support of his claim to consistency Leach points out that he has been evenhanded and nonpartisan in supporting all of the various Banking Committee probes into savings and loans, including the one that highlighted President Bush's son Neil.

Though Leach has been involved as a supporting player in many past congressional inquiries, if the House Whitewater probe goes ahead as now planned, it would mark his debut as Republican point man. As such he would become a likely target for brickbats from the White House and Democrats, but most analysts say he is well suited to stand the heat.