Impeachment as Cache

If there's anyone who can feel Bill Clinton's pain, it's ousted-judge-turned-congressman Alcee Hastings

The three lawyers on the podium did their best for more than an hour to sustain the interest of the small audience crammed into the faculty lounge at the University of Miami Law School. The suited men joked that it must have been a bad hair day for the missing guest of honor, though his pate is as bare and shiny as a cue ball. Many in the audience passed the time gobbling up finger food. As the hour elapsed, they waited patiently for the man who knows the meaning of impeachment, the one who would be the star of a gathering dubbed "Crisis in the Starr Chamber: Has the Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr Abused His Power, and Should He Be Removed From Office?"

Not long after all the chicken sandwiches disappeared, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings bounded into the room with a grin as flashy as his tailored double-breasted suit. The Miramar Democrat had waltzed into welcoming territory. Hastings winked and pointed at people in a crowd packed with pals and assumed his perch on the panel next to his long-time lawyer, Terry Anderson. Then he enlivened the stilted symposium by stepping to the podium and speaking a familiar, if ironic, line.

"As I watch this [impeachment] process, I feel as helpless as I did when it was happening to me," intoned the ousted federal judge turned congressman. "Only this time the treatment is more unfair. The politics are very funky.... There is a violation of the separation of powers when a prosecutor is given this kind of latitude and the legislature cannot use all the evidence to make a decision."

Hastings has the authority to speak on this momentous subject; he is the only member of congress to have gone through the impeachment process himself.

And he's not shy about the subject.
In the few months leading up to the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment inquiry into President Clinton's conduct, which began this week, the congressman has positioned his mug on a multitude of national broadcasts, including interviews and specials on CBS, ABC, Fox, MSNBC, and a documentary on A&E's American Justice. Hastings has even appeared for multiple rap sessions with CNBC's crisis-of-the-moment star, Geraldo Rivera.

While it may be the kind of free publicity any pol dreams of, there's another motive in Hastings' recent spate of public jawboning: vindication.

"It's not unusual for politicians to try to take advantage of an issue, no matter how tragic or personal, to gain attention," said J.P. Monroe, a political science professor at the University of Miami. "But here's someone who has a vested interest in the outcome. If the President can in fact get away with this, and he can create the impression that it was politically motivated, it takes the heat off of [Hastings]. He can turn around and make the same claim about his own case."

The fifth-generation Floridian has passionately maintained his innocence since the U.S. Senate voted in 1989 to strip him of his federal judgeship on grounds of bribery and perjury, despite a Miami jury's previous acquittal of him on the same charges. Hastings has also been trumpeting new evidence that surfaced last year, which he hopes will ultimately be used to clear his name, compensate him for years of legal fees, and reinstate his pension, though it's unlikely Congress will reconsider his case. (He was removed from the bench two months before he completed the ten years of service needed to vest him with his full pension rights.)

Hastings, age 62, is one of only seven officials in U.S. history to have been dismissed from office by the Senate, and he's the only impeached official who has ever returned to a high elective office. The reborn congressman grew up in a rural town near Orlando, the only son of a butler and maid. After graduating from law school at Florida A&M in 1963, he moved to Fort Lauderdale to practice law. Seven years later he became the first black since Reconstruction to run for a Florida seat in the U.S. Senate. In the next decade, the young lawyer also lost bids for the Fort Lauderdale City Commission, the Public Service Commission, and the Florida Senate.

But his persistence paid off. Then-Gov. Reubin Askew appointed him to the Broward Circuit Court in 1977. Two years later Hastings became one of several minority judges appointed to the federal bench by President Carter. By 1981, however, his career's quick climb came to a halt. He was accused of accepting a $150,000 bribe in connection with a criminal case over which he presided in Miami. Though a jury acquitted him of the charges in 1983, a panel of federal judges reopened the case four years later and found him guilty of both committing the original crime and then lying about it under oath. Ultimately the House voted 413-3 to impeach him, and, despite Hastings' assertion of his innocence throughout and his argument of double jeopardy, the Senate voted 69-26 to convict and remove him from the bench.

Three years later, benefiting from a newly drawn and heavily black district that stretches from Miami-Dade to Okeechobee County, Hastings was elected to the same institution that helped end his judicial career. His claims of innocence were bolstered last year after a memo uncovered by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) showed an FBI agent investigating Hastings' case lied as many as 27 times to the federal judges who accused the fallen jurist of bribery and perjury. Though the agent's false testimony was not used as evidence against Hastings, he claims it indicates how badly authorities mishandled his case.

"The most important thing of all is getting vindication of his name," said Anderson, a University of Miami law professor who represented Hastings through his impeachment and continues to call for the congressman's complete absolution, which is as likely as the President's impeachment after last week's nationwide Democratic rally.

If part of that road to exoneration is seeing Clinton cleared from impeachment and Starr lambasted as an insidious zealot trying at all costs to topple the President, Hastings is doing what he can to divert the public's attention from sexual misadventures to prosecutorial misconduct. In September the congressman, who's championed as a comeback kid in the black community, went on the attack. He proposed a House resolution to impeach Starr for "intimidating witnesses," misusing his office to embarrass the President, leaking grand jury material, and "wasting more than $40 million in an investigation that he knew he could not justify." It was swiftly voted down 340-71. More recently Hastings sent a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno requesting she investigate Starr. Also, he and Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Island) proposed another resolution, this time calling for an inquiry into impeaching the independent counsel.

While much of the maneuvering might amount to little more than political ballyhoo, even one of Hastings' old foes -- someone he once denounced as a "bitch" and a "racist" -- believes his motives rise above simple attention-mongering. "He has steadfastly maintained his innocence, and he is not shy about continuing those claims," says Lois Frankel, who challenged Hastings in the 1992 Democratic primaries and now serves as a state representative for West Palm Beach. "I don't think there's anything inappropriate about him stepping into the spotlight."

Jack Moss, a former Broward County commissioner, says: "He has never been a shrinking violet, and whenever anyone of high profile does something as outlandish as trying to impeach Ken Starr, it's bound to call attention to the individual. Alcee likes to hold a high profile. He has not mellowed with age."

Last Tuesday Hastings' cache of credibility ratcheted up a notch. He was elected to his fourth term after running unopposed. While his anti-impeachment efforts still spark criticism -- a Republican House staff member sent him an e-mail after he introduced the Starr impeachment resolution saying, "Impeach yourself you idiot" -- the former judge says he's just trying to prevent his own fate from befalling the President.

As the Miami-Dade forum on dethroning Starr wound up, the short and stocky congressman gloated among well-wishers in the way only a politician can. His smile again gleamed as a gaggle of supporters reached to shake his hand or impart some praise. Balancing a portion of the remaining hors d'oeuvres, Hastings promised new petitions against the independent counsel and further resolutions. Then, fingering his grizzled beard, he wondered: "How can you remove someone from office for personal misconduct?

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