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February 19, 2013

High-Profile Clinton Defender Honed His Skills in Los Angeles

Politics: Mark Fabiani, once a spokesman for former Mayor Tom Bradley, now takes on President Clinton’s Whitewater critics.

February 02, 1996|GLENN F. BUNTING and RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Appearing on network television in defense of the president and first lady, the Clinton administration’s designated pit bull seldom misses an opportunity to attack the Republican chairman of the special Senate committee on Whitewater.

“You know, Sen. [Alfonse M.] D’Amato is a classic political henchman,” said Mark D. Fabiani, airing a favorite sound bite on a recent Sunday TV news show.

Fabiani has emerged as one of the White House’s most visible defenders. As special associate counsel to the president, he primarily is responsible for parrying the damaging allegations stemming from the Whitewater affair. It is a role he knows well. The 38-year-old, Harvard-trained lawyer honed his skills on behalf of Tom Bradley, the longtime Los Angeles mayor dogged by ethical troubles during his final terms.

At City Hall, Fabiani was widely regarded as a brash, sharp-witted “boy wonder” who was particularly adept at containing the fallout from Bradley’s legal problems. Bradley, now in private practice at a Los Angeles law firm, called Fabiani “an ideal person for this task. He is one of the most brilliant men that I have ever come across.”

Jane Sherburne, who heads the White House legal unit overseeing Whitewater, said officials knew that Fabiani had arrived “battle-tested” after several years of fighting unproven allegations against Bradley ranging from political corruption to insider trading.

Indeed, some of the same damage-control techniques that Fabiani employed as a hard-nosed “spin doctor” during his tenure in the mayor’s office are evident in his handling of Whitewater. But Washington is a far bigger stage than City Hall, and it remains to be seen whether Fabiani can help the Clintons ride out the latest waves of controversy.

His role has taken on increasing importance, with Senate Republicans proposing to extend Whitewater hearings well into the election year and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s appearance Friday before a federal grand jury to answer questions about the mysterious discovery of long-sought billing records in the White House living quarters.

Aside from Whitewater, Fabiani serves as the administration’s point man in responding to questions about the travel office fiasco and other sensitive matters.

“He’s become the garbage disposal for all the garbage,” said an appreciative White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry.

It is a thankless task that demands the personal trust and confidence of President and Mrs. Clinton. Yet Fabiani, drafted by the White House in April at a $92,000 annual salary–more than $10,000 below what he earned as deputy mayor–is hardly a close confidante of the Clintons. And it is unclear whether he participates in formulating strategy.

The administration’s Whitewater response team has been roundly criticized for its failure to address lingering questions and provide documents in a timely manner. Conflicting accounts involving the handling of files belonging to deceased White House lawyer Vincent W. Foster Jr. and the puzzling appearance of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s billing records have heightened suspicions of a possible cover-up.

In an interview, Fabiani described his mission this way: “The goal in this job is not to be quoted in the newspaper. So that, if there is ever a day when you’re not on TV and not quoted in the newspaper, that is a good day.”

By this measure, Fabiani has endured more than his share of trying days. In recent weeks, his name has shown up regularly in nearly every major U.S. newspaper, and he has appeared on all three network evening news programs, “Nightline” and cable outlets ranging from CNN to Court TV.

He seems to relish his role as the administration’s rhetorical hit man. Fabiani frequently lambastes D’Amato as a “political witch hunter” for the way in which he has conducted the Senate’s Whitewater investigation. He has zeroed in on the New York Republican’s own transgressions–pressuring him to release records from his 1991 encounter with the Senate Ethics Committee–and ridiculed the senator’s dual role as chief Whitewater inquisitor and a top official in GOP front-runner Sen. Bob Dole’s presidential campaign.

Such naked partisan barbs are rarely hurled by chief presidential spokesman McCurry–who tends to hold himself above the swirling scandals during his news briefings at the White House. But Fabiani, operating next door out of a fourth-floor office in the Old Executive Office Building, has free reign to lash out at D’Amato and other administration foes, aides say.

“I have sometimes been surprised at how feisty he is–pleasantly surprised,” McCurry said. “He can be real combative.”

On occasion, critics say Fabiani has been rather quick to pull the trigger on Clinton adversaries.

*

Take the opening day of Whitewater hearings in July. Senate Republicans waved a dark brown leather briefcase belonging to Foster, the White House lawyer who shot himself to death in 1993, in an effort to cast doubt on claims by Clinton aides that they didn’t see a “suicide” note torn up into 27 pieces inside.

Fabiani criticized the theatrical display and accused Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr of improperly releasing grand jury evidence to Republicans for use as a political “prop.” It turned out that the briefcase was jointly requested by the committee’s leading Republican and Democrat. D’Amato called the accusation “nonsense,” and Fabiani’s remarks drew an immediate rebuke from Starr.

In Los Angeles, Fabiani had similar encounters in his dealings at City Hall. After he was assigned by Bradley in 1990 to look into allegations that the mayor’s aides had misused official resources for political campaign work, Fabiani and five of his staffers were reprimanded by the mayor for a similar offense–using city equipment on city time to help elect a Bradley-backed City Council candidate.

The episode occurred at a time when Los Angeles police already were investigating the previous allegations. The LAPD extended its criminal probe to include the incident involving Fabiani and the five aides, but Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner declined to press charges.

In his current position, Fabiani has used some of the same tactics that he used to defend Bradley to cast the Clintons’ involvement in Whitewater in the most favorable light. These include:

* Releasing documents at night–often on a Friday–with hopes of keeping unflattering stories off the evening news shows and downplaying their significance in the next day’s newspapers. Late on the evening of Jan. 3, Fabiani gave the Associated Press a memo by former administration lawyer David Watkins that contradicted Mrs. Clinton’s assertions that she had no involvement in the firing of the White House travel staff. Two nights later–and too late for the evening news programs on a Friday–Fabiani arranged for reporters to review the hotly pursued billing records for her work at the Rose Law Firm.

* Issuing the same responses over and over. Fabiani regularly insists the Senate hearings are “a political sideshow” and Whitewater allegations “are evaporating.”

“He has a mantra that he repeats again and again,” said one Republican congressional investigator involved in Whitewater. “Something like, ‘This is consistent with what we’ve been saying all along,’ or ‘This is political.’ He doesn’t veer from that.”

* Rushing to question the integrity of political adversaries. When the Watkins memo contradicted Mrs. Clinton’s account of the travel office firings, Fabiani told reporters that “her statements are true and his are false.” Fabiani said he arrived at this conclusion without independently verifying the statements and without interviewing Mrs. Clinton or Watkins.

* Deflecting criticism with clever sound bites. When Republicans boasted last month about uncovering a “smoking gun” letter from Foster’s files, Fabiani responded that the disclosure was another “titillating” revelation that would lead nowhere. “This isn’t a smoking gun, this is a squirt gun,” he quipped.

From an early age, Fabiani demonstrated exceptional oratory skills. He was an award-winning member of La Verne’s Damien High School debate team and was named the nation’s outstanding intercollegiate debater in 1979. That same year, Fabiani, the son of an Ontario police officer, was graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Redlands. In 1982, he graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School.

His law school professor, Alan Dershowitz, praised Fabiani as one of his best students and for his work in helping Dershowitz get an attempted murder conviction overturned on appeal for Danish-born socialite Claus von Bulow.

Fabiani returned to Southern California in 1982 to be a law clerk for U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a politically well-connected jurist and a Bradley confidante. He then joined a Los Angeles law firm and, after taking only two cases to trial, used connections to Reinhardt to land a job as Bradley’s legal counsel in 1985.

At the height of Bradley’s ethics woes in 1989, Fabiani, then 32, replaced Mike Gage as chief of staff. He managed the mayor’s response to an assortment of scandals and investigations. In the end, Bradley was cleared of any legal wrongdoing, but his once stellar reputation was severely tarnished.

*

Fabiani directed a staff of 127 employees and was responsible for launching a vigorous legislative agenda that revitalized Bradley’s image during his final term.

Fabiani joined the Clinton administration in 1993 as a speech writer for Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, but left after nine months to become a deputy assistant housing secretary.

He was recruited by Andrew M. Cuomo, assistant housing secretary for community planning and development and son of former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, to manage the Clinton administration’s empowerment zone program, an initiative launched by the president to help inner cities in the wake of the Los Angeles riots. But, when Los Angeles was passed over for the program, Mayor Richard Riordan’s administration privately blamed Fabiani for deliberately snubbing the city.

“We don’t trust Fabiani,” said one Riordan confidante who requested anonymity. “He’s been taking on this mayor since he was Bradley’s chief of staff.”

Both Cuomo and Fabiani insisted that Fabiani had nothing to do with the selection process. Fabiani stressed that, after Los Angeles lost the $250-million empowerment zone, he played an instrumental role in securing a $430-million community enterprise bank for the city.

After a year, Fabiani left his administrative post at HUD to become the president’s lead spokesman on Whitewater.

He said he neither sought the assignment nor was eager to accept it, describing his HUD position as “a great job in terms of trying to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Times staff writers Doyle McManus and John M. Broder contributed to this story.

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