The Magazine

MR. IMPEACHMENT

Sep 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 03 • By ERIC FELTEN
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PRESIDENT CLINTON'S "REBUTTAL" to the Starr report denies there are grounds for impeachment because the report fails to provide unambiguous evidence of perjury. Any members of the House inclined to take the word of David Kendall and Charles Ruff, the lawyers who penned the rebuttal, will want first to consult one of their colleagues, Rep. Alcee Hastings. The Florida Democrat is Congress's resident expert on impeachment, and his expertise is hard-won: Hastings is the only congressman who has himself been impeached. And his story, his own political preferences notwithstanding -- Hastings lately called for the impeachment of independent counsel Kenneth Starr -- is unrelievedly grim for the president.


Hastings, then a federal judge, was impeached 426-3 by the House in August 1988 for taking bribes from the bench and committing perjury. Appointed by Jimmy Carter in 1979, Hastings was the first black district-court judge in Florida. But early in his tenure, Hastings got into trouble. One of the first cases he was assigned was the trial of Tom and Frank Romano, who were accused of bleeding a Teamsters pension fund. The two were convicted of racketeering, facing serious jail time, and the court seized from them $ 1 million in ill-gotten gains.


Enter William A. Borders Jr., Washington attorney and an old friend of Hastings. Borders met with one of the Romano brothers and suggested that, for the right price, his pal the judge could fix the case. Frank Romano agreed to give Borders $ 150,000; in exchange, the brothers would be released on probation and get back their forfeited $ 1 million. Borders collected a down payment on the $ 150,000; Hastings returned more than $ 800,000 to the Romanos; and Borders then collected the balance due, taking a suitcase full of cash from Romano. And then Borders was arrested: It wasn't Frank Romano he had been conspiring with, but Paul Rico, an undercover FBI agent.


Borders was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to five years in jail. Not so Hastings, against whom the case was much less solid. Borders was the one who offered the deal; Borders was the one who picked up the cash; Borders was the one caught red-handed. But there was no direct evidence that Hastings was actually part of the plot. There were phone conversations between Borders and Hastings that the FBI had recorded -- but none in which a bribery deal was explicitly discussed. Prosecutors argued (none too convincingly) that the recordings showed Borders and Hastings conspiring in a mysterious code language. The key piece of circumstantial evidence was somewhat more persuasive: Hastings returned the forfeited cash just as Borders had promised he would. Pure coincidence, Hastings argued. And Hasting's arguments proved compelling enough that a jury acquitted him of all charges in 1983.


What with the Constitution's protection against double jeopardy, Hastings had every reason to believe that his acquittal had ended the matter. It hadn't. Several years later, a panel of federal judges complained to Congress that Hastings had lied at his trial and manufactured phony evidence to exculpate himself. Under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act, the judges asked the House to impeach Hastings. It did, and that's how judge Alcee Hastings ended up before a Senate impeachment committee in the summer of 1989, being tried on the very charges of which a jury had already acquitted him.


"What we're doing here is impeaching a jury verdict," Hastings said at the time. "A fair trial for Alcee Hastings is no trial." Hastings sought to have the articles of impeachment dismissed by a federal court. No go. "It is an acquittal that cannot be overturned," said Rep. John Bryant, acting as "prosecutor" in Hastings's trial by the Senate. The Texas Democrat explained that "Judge Hastings cannot be prosecuted again. But he can be removed from office."