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White Power

Against Arab terrorists or Wall Street criminals, U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White always plays to win. But is investigating the president who appointed you really such a good career move?


U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White meets the press wearing a navy-blue suit fastened with a row of metal buckles that look like maximum-security dead bolts. At five feet tall, she's a cuter version of the actress Linda Hunt, and to counter her diminutive size, she often dresses like a Prussian cavalry officer, with military-style epaulets and rows of brass buttons.

White walks briskly to the podium and peeps over a bank of microphones. She's jubilant, having just won convictions in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Africa that killed more than 200 people, but it's not her style to show it. Instead, as she explains how this verdict is a triumph for American democracy, her face remains a stern mask. Outside, the afternoon sky blackens, and a peal of thunder gives the press conference a suitably ominous coda.

Maybe the thunderstorm is just an angry reaction to the verdict from Allah, but a similar cloud has been hanging over White for some time. This moment of triumph should have been the capstone to her eight-year tenure as U.S. Attorney for New York's Southern District. Under her watch, the office has been at the center of America's campaign against international terror, and the guilty verdict for the embassy bombers is just one in a string of successful convictions that goes back to her first win, in 1994, against the World Trade Center bombers.

But as White slips back behind the blue curtain to celebrate with her staff in private, the press corps is actually less interested in her triumph against terror than in her next move in a far murkier arena. Everyone wants to know whether she is going to indict anyone over the last-minute pardons granted by President Bill Clinton. White, who likes to portray herself as resolutely apolitical, has become embroiled in the kind of politically charged case that she avoided throughout her career. Prosecuting terrorists is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, but investigating the man who gave you your job is something else entirely. Was this really how she wanted to end her term as U.S. Attorney?

For the past eight years, White has wielded colossal power within the Silvio J. Mollo federal building, a brown citadel in Police Plaza. At 53, she is the first female U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, a position formerly held by a long line of men who went on to become U.S. Senators, mayors, attorneys general, and secretaries of State and War. Her predecessors include Mayor Giuliani, Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau, and legal legends like Elihu Root, who went on to become Teddy Roosevelt's secretary of State and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and Henry Stimson, FDR's secretary of War.

Despite her height, she was a fierce member of the women's basketball team as a young prosecutor. "People checked their knees for teeth marks," says one lawyer.

Mary Jo White is one of only a handful of Clinton appointees that the Bush administration has decided to keep on, but she may be wondering how lucky she really is to be staying. Investigating the Democrat who appointed her on behalf of a Republican regime possibly bent on revenge could be an uncomfortable spot for a woman who is used to appearing totally impartial.

In Washington, subpoena-weary ex-Clintonites have inadvertently been referring to White as "the independent counsel," says Lanny J. Davis, who was Clinton's special counsel between 1996 and 1998. "It seems rather smart of Attorney General Ashcroft to retain a Clinton appointee to do this investigation. Suppose he'd appointed a Jesse Helms favorite. He'd immediately face questions about whether he was engaged in an independent inquiry or a partisan agenda."

Leaks about White's investigation indicate that the former president might have less to worry about than his brother, Roger Clinton, who allegedly took money from some unsavory characters in exchange for promises that the president would grant them pardons. Roger is expected to plead the Fifth.

When Clinton appointed her to the nation's premier prosecutor's office, the Democrats could have claimed her as their own, but she has certainly not shown any favoritism in their direction now that the Republicans are in office. If she indicts either Clinton brother, White will finally be staking out a position on the political map that she's been more comfortable tiptoeing across.

Bill Clinton isn't the only big Democrat currently in her sights. In March, White took over the corruption investigation of Senator Robert Torricelli. After a special commission investigating Torricelli disbanded, the Justice Department turned the case over to the Southern District rather than to the federal prosecutor's office in New Jersey, where the crimes allegedly occurred. It is unclear how the case landed on White's plate. One rumor blames Torricelli himself, because he had been complaining that he would never get a fair shake from the New Jersey Feds. It is also possible that the Justice Department was worried Torricelli would get too fair a shake from a home-state prosecutor he had a hand in appointing.

Another prominent Democrat in White's sights is Democratic Party chief Terry McAuliffe. After a long lull in investigating a money-laundering scandal involving former Teamsters president Ron Carey, White indicted Carey in late January on charges that he lied to investigators. McAuliffe is reportedly implicated in a scheme to trade support for Carey for union contributions to the Democrats in 1996. McAuliffe's lawyer has said he's been assured by federal prosecutors that McAuliffe was not a target of the probe. But the prospect of the Democratic Party chief's being grilled before a grand jury remains. McAuliffe did not return calls for comment.

Gina Talamona, a spokeswoman for Ashcroft, says "there's no specific timetable" for White's departure and insists the decision to retain White was made before the pardon investigation began. "This is an administration clearly bent on replacing U.S. Attorneys as fast as they can," says former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton, who worked with White in the beginning of her term. "The fact that they left her in place is a reflection of the respect they have for her and that they don't feel she will sandbag the case. Mary Jo is somebody who will go where the truth is and let the chips fall where they may."

Ironically, White was a significant player in the Clinton Justice Department -- she was even on the shortlist for attorney general before Janet Reno was appointed. (Al Gore was also reportedly considering her as his attorney general.) She worked closely with Reno in the early days of the administration, shuttling between New York and Washington as chairperson of the attorney general's advisory committee, representing the country's 93 U.S. Attorneys. "She gave me her perspective on matters of ethics, cases, and policy, and it was extraordinarily helpful," Reno says. Of White's overall performance, Reno says, "She was splendid."

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