The chief Democrat probing US President George W. Bush's decision to erase the prison sentence of a former White House aide says there is "the suspicion" the aide might have implicated others in the Bush administration if he served time.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers spoke of "the general impression" that Bush last week commuted I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's two-and-half-year sentence in the CIA leak case to keep Libby quiet. The White House said Conyers' claim was baseless.
Conyers has scheduled a committee hearing tomorrow on the matter.
Bush contended Libby's sentence was too harsh. Libby was convicted of lying and obstructing justice in an investigation into the leak of a CIA officer's identity. The former operative said the White House was trying to discredit her husband, a critic of Bush's Iraq policy.
Conyers said the hearings would include pardons made by President Bill Clinton, president George H.W. Bush and possibly other past presidents. In the closing hours of his presidency, Clinton pardoned 140 people, including fugitive financier Marc Rich.
"What we have here -- and I think we should put it on the table right at the beginning -- is that the suspicion was that if Mr. Libby went to prison, he might further implicate other people in the White House, and that there was some kind of relationship here that does not exist in any of president Clinton's pardons, nor, according to those that we've talked to ... is that it's never existed before, ever,'' Conyers said in a broadcast interview on Sunday.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said in response: "That's a fairly ridiculous and baseless assertion. It may be impossible to plumb the depths of Chairman Conyers' `suspicions,' but we can hope this one is near the bottom."
Conyers' counterpart in the Senate, Representative Patrick Leahy, said "it would do no good" to ask Libby to testify before Congress.
"His silence has been bought and paid for and he would just take the Fifth," Leahy said, referring to the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution, which protects against self-incrimination.
A Republican on Conyers' committee took issue with the investigation into Bush's decision in the Libby case.
"It's clearly within the authority of the president," Representative Chris Cannon said.
"To go after the president on this issue shows a dearth of any opportunity to go after something substantive in this administration. I would prefer that we not waste our time in Congress on these witch hunts and frivolous activities," he said.
A second Republican lawmaker said Bush's action in the Libby case would hold up well against Clinton's pardons.
"I think we'll put up the record of the president versus that of Bill Clinton and the president will come out relatively good on that," Representative Pete Hoekstra said.
Bush acted last Monday just hours after a federal appeals panel ruled that Libby could not delay his prison term. Libby probably would have had to report soon, which could have put new pressure on the president, who had been sidestepping calls by Libby's allies to pardon Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.
Conyers said he wants Bush to waive executive privilege and let his pardon lawyers or other experts, "who it appears that he did not consult, explain this in a little more detail ... Commutations usually follow after a person has served some period of time. And of course, this isn't the case here."
In his decision, Bush let stand a US$250,000 fine, which Libby paid.
The special prosecutor in the leak case, Patrick Fitzgerald, took issue with Bush's claim the prison term was excessive.
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