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Ex-Watergate Prosecutor Ruff Is Reported to Be Front-Runner for Nussbaum’s Job : Politics: Clinton aide calls the 54-year-old attorney a ‘person of distinction’ but goes no further. Naming of successor expected soon.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

As the furor over the Clinton Administration’s handling of the Whitewater investigation raged across the Sunday TV talk shows, the White House appeared to be narrowing in on a replacement for presidential counsel Bernard Nussbaum, who resigned under fire for his actions during the probe.

One senior Administration official said the White House will pick a successor soon and said former Watergate prosecutor Charles F. C. Ruff had emerged “as the clear, clear front-runner for the job.”

Like other White House sources, the official cautioned that no final decision had been reached. “In this game there is no guarantee until it is over,” he said. But he added: “Charles Ruff is pretty far along with it.”

Asked about those remarks, Ruff said Sunday: “You’re way ahead of me,” adding that he “was not in a position to talk about this.”

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In an interview on CNN’s “Late Edition,” White House Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty on Sunday described Ruff as “a person of distinction.” But he added: “I’m not going to get into any specific individuals.”

Nussbaum resigned Saturday after it was reported last week that he had participated in three meetings between White House aides and Treasury Department officials supervising the Resolution Trust Corp.'s investigation of a failed Arkansas savings and loan owned by the Clintons’ business partner in the Whitewater land development.

On Sunday, Republicans escalated charges that those meetings raised the specter of a “cover-up” and obstruction of justice.

“Let’s not forget that Richard Nixon turned a third-rate burglary into a constitutional crisis by not leveling, by interfering in the investigation,” said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) on ABC-TV’s “This Week With David Brinkley.” “I think the President is getting deeper into a hole. If the President continues to have officials of the regulatory agencies over to the White House to brief staff, if the President continues to have White House counsels interfere in investigations, that can quickly become obstruction of justice if you’re not careful about it.”

Also appearing on the program, George Stephanopoulos, senior adviser to the President, said the Administration doesn’t believe “anything unethical occurred” during the meetings between White House and Treasury Department staffers and that “no specific information about the substance of the investigation was provided at all.” The purpose of the meetings, was to discuss how “to handle the press inquiries” about the controversy, Stephanopoulos said.

But, Stephanopoulos conceded, “the meetings probably should not have happened.”

Likewise, Vice President Al Gore acknowledged Sunday that “mistakes have been made” in the White House’s handling of the investigation. “Whatever mistakes were made,” he said on the NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press,” “there is an aggressive determination to make absolutely certain that there is no interference of any kind.”

As a successor to Nussbaum, a longtime friend of the Clintons, the President should pick someone beyond his inner circle, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) counseled Sunday. The person should be “someone who is not a friend of anybody working there now, but is a friend of the institution of the presidency,” he said on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation.”

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The senior Administration official said it was unrealistic to demand that Clinton appoint to the job someone he doesn’t know. Instead, he argued, the test should be whether “you can imagine a President other than Bill Clinton appointing (the person) to the job.”

Last year, the Administration appeared poised to nominate Ruff, a 54-year-old Washington attorney who served in the Justice Department under Jimmy Carter, as deputy attorney general. But the appointment unraveled after Ruff revealed he had failed to pay Social Security taxes on a housekeeper.

That decision came after the Administration withdrew the nomination of Zoe Baird to be attorney general in the wake of revelations that she had failed to pay Social Security taxes on a housekeeper who was an illegal immigrant.

Subsequently, though, the Administration has nominated about two dozen other officials who had failed to pay required taxes on household help; in each case the nominee paid up the back taxes.

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House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), appearing separately on CNN, reiterated the GOP’s calls for congressional hearings on the Whitewater controversy.

Moynihan had earlier rejected such calls, saying such hearings would only interfere with the investigations of Whitewater special counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr.

But in an interview on the ABC program, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), himself under investigation for alleged ethical lapses, cracked open the door, saying “we’ll take a look” at hearings.


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