The Zoe Baird Debacle: How It Happened

The Baird debacle grew out of a selection process in which Clinton aides acted hastily and cavalierly in brushing aside an early warning

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There was quiet concern at the Justice Department. After the scandals that plagued previous Attorneys General -- Edwin Meese (Iran-contra and Wedtech), Dick Thornburgh (B.C.C.I.) and William Barr (the Iraqi-loan affair) -- the department badly needs to salvage its reputation. At a moment when strong leadership is needed, employees were worried about working for an Attorney General who largely owed her job to Christopher. Justice and State often spar when criminal investigations turn up evidence of misdeeds by foreign officials of friendly countries.

None of these issues, however, threatened to derail the Baird nomination. For that, a far more potent explosive was required. It came, in classic Washington fashion, in the form of a leak, one that Baird supporters think dripped from the FBI, though they can't prove it. On Jan. 14, the public awoke to a Page One New York Times headline: CLINTON'S CHOICE FOR JUSTICE DEPT. HIRED ILLEGAL ALIENS FOR HOUSEHOLD. By this time, Baird and Gewirtz had remedied their delinquent-tax situation by paying nearly $16,000 in taxes, penalties and interest. It was made known that they had hired the Peruvians only after failing to find an American baby-sitter and that they had relied on the advice of an immigration lawyer, Thomas Belote of Ridgefield, Connecticut. The Clinton camp released a letter from Belote, dated Jan. 5, 1993, and written at Gewirtz's request, confirming that he had provided counsel and had advised that the Peruvians' lack of Social Security numbers would complicate tax payments.

Immediately, questions arose about the propriety of Baird's presiding over a department that oversees the enforcement of immigration laws. Yet the Clinton camp remained unfazed, dismissing Baird's transgression as a "technical violation." By the weekend, with editorials denouncing Baird's nomination, the Clinton people had shifted to a "Baird deeply regrets" mode. But they still did not grasp that a recession-pressed public would have little sympathy for the nanny problems of a couple who jointly earned more than $600,000 annually and evaded taxes.

* Among the top players in the unfolding drama, only Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Joseph Biden seemed to anticipate the fire storm ahead. He first learned from Baird on Jan. 5 of her transgressions. Biden was shocked when a Clinton transition aide dismissed Baird's offense as a "parking ticket." To his mind, a worried Biden told his staff, "It's a freeway crash." "Putting aside the legal question, this is a big political problem," Biden told Baird, who appeared surprised by his vehemence. Biden told her that she had to inform ranking minority member Orrin Hatch and Senators Edward Kennedy and Alan Simpson, who sit on an immigration subcommittee. Baird had two more meetings with Biden, each time leaving his office in tears. On the day the Times story broke, Biden stated, "I do not believe this matter will prevent her confirmation." Meanwhile, the increasingly public discussion was making the Clinton camp angry with the panel's Democratic Senators for stirring up the issue. "The White House gave us a lot of heat," says an aide to one Senator. "They said, 'Why aren't you being as helpful as Senator Hatch?' "

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