WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has asked Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint a special counsel to investigate his involvement in a failed Arkansas land deal, a senior White House official said Wednesday.
The president's chief counsel, Bernard W. Nussbaum, formally made the request in a letter to Reno. Senior White House adviser George Stephanopoulos said even though the president maintains that he has done nothing wrong, Clinton decided to make the request in order to 'ensure the public a full and fair accounting of this matter.'
Nussbaum wrote: 'The president has directed me to request you to appoint as special counsel a respected, impartial and qualified attorney who is not a member of the Department of Justice or an employee of the federal government to conduct an appropriate independent investigation of the Whitewater matter and report to the American people.'
Stephanopoulos praised Reno for taking 'all the proper steps to assure the independence of this probe,' adding that the investigation has been conducted so far by a carreer prosecutor and there is no doubt to that it has been anything but 'thorough, energetic, professional and even-handed.'
He also said, however, that the controversy is becoming too much of a distraction to Clinton and 'he wants to get on with the vital issues facing the American people.'
During a news conference at the Justice Department, Reno said after Stephanopoulos's announcement that she will honor the president's request for a special counsel. She said she would choose someone as soon as possible and will consider 'everyone possible.'
Reno has maintained -- in denying earlier requests for a special counsel -- that anyone she chose would not be seen as truly impartial.
She said Wednesday that such an observation could still be made but added, 'I want to choose someone in whom I have confidence that they will be independent, that they will conduct the investigation the way they think it should be conducted, that they have a reputation for honesty and real skill in' such matters.
The investigation will likely concern the president's connection to James McDougal, who operated the failed Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan and the Whitewater Development Co., which Clinton co-owned; the Clintons' lost $69,000 investment in Whitewater; Hillary Clinton's role as an attorney representing Madison; and Clinton's regulatory actions as governor.
Earlier this month, a subpoena was issued -- on the White House's request -- that all the documents be turned over to the Justice Department. About half of the documents have been turned over and Stephanopoulos said the rest will be turned over by a Jan. 18 deadline.
In repeating the 'facts' of the case, Stephanopoulos said the Clintons received no income or dividends from their investment in Whitewater, that all the bank loans -- none of which were from Madison -- were repaid in full, and that the Clintons were not involved in Whitewater's operations and did not keep its records.
He also said there is no evidence that Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, took any steps to ease regulatory pressure on Madison.
Stephanopoulos said a federal grand jury is currently investigating matters relating to the S&L and it may touch upon Whitewater. He added that the Clintons have cooperated fully with the investigation, and they have directed their attorney to continue to do so.
The White House adviser added that despite their cooperation, the 'Clintons have been subjected to a barrage of innuendo, political posturing and irresponsible accusations.'
'It is remarkable that those who call for an independent counsel state that there is no evidence of wrongdoing by the Clintons in this matter,' he said.
The move comes after increasing calls from the president's own party for Reno to name a special counsel to investigate the matter. Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas and House Republican leader Robert Michel of Illinois have said they want Congress to establish a select committee to investigate the politically sensitive affair.
The reaction on Capitol Hill -- among Democrats -- was positive, with calls for Republicans to call off the political hounds.
'President Clinton has demonstrated his willingness to cooperate in an appropriate and detailed inquiry into this matter,' Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell of Maine said. 'Calls for a select congressional committee are unnecessary and are clearly an attempt to politicize this matter.'
House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., said he hopes that Clinton's action 'will cut off any further suggestion that the president or the first lady have been anything but forthcoming on this matter.'
Stephanopoulos said there was a 'general reluctance throughout the White House' that such a move was necessary and many feel it 'sets a bad precedent.'
When asked if the White House has done a good job in limiting the political damage caused by Whitewater, he said, 'I can certainly say that the damage control team in Washington did a worse job than the arms control team in Kiev.'