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Why Was Hubbell Paid?

Once again the Clinton White House has shown skill at being its own worst enemy. This week it added fuel to accusations that it regularly engages in stonewalling and coverup - coverup that often seems more damaging than the manipulation it seeks to conceal.

President Clinton's aides belatedly released information April 1 detailing how top members of his team arranged for various old friends and political contributors to shower some $400,000 in payments on Clinton friend-in-trouble, Webster Hubbell.

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The question under investigation by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr: Was this "hush money"? Was it meant to keep Hubbell from telling more of what he knew about the Clintons' role in the bank loan maneuvers known as Whitewater?

Increasingly, the separate channels of (a) Whitewater and (b) the 1996 campaign contributors scandal seem to converge.

Hubbell obviously knows a lot about Whitewater, the parallel Castle Grande real estate loan, and Mrs. Clinton's work on matters under scrutiny at the Rose Law Firm. He was her mentor and partner there. He kept Rose billing papers in his files before turning them over to Clinton adviser Vincent Foster. (After Foster's suicide, the papers disappeared for more than two years before turning up in the White House residential quarters.)

Now the tie-in to campaign contributors seeking influence or Lincoln bedroom glamour.

Hubbell was in trouble - on his way to jail. It stretches credulity that: (1) He suddenly performed services worth $100,000 to Indonesian deal-developer James Riady and another $300,000 to Democratic contributors from big US firms. (2) Those firms would hire a lawyer disgraced for overbilling clients and his own firm.

What those, and other contributors apparently might hope for was later payback, such as influential overseas trips with the commerce secretary, or multibillion-dollar risk insurance from the federal Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

It also stretches credulity that Mr. Clinton's top confidants, including his former chief of staff, his future chief of staff, and his personal lawyer, would work so determinedly just to be charitable to the disgraced Hubbell.

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If the Clinton team has nothing to hide, it should not have stonewalled. Nor should Mr. Clinton have denied knowledge when others say they mentioned Hubbell funding to him.

It's time for Mr. Clinton to speak more forthrightly about these matters.

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