Arkansas Business' 25 Clintonites (25th Anniversary)

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Monday, Mar. 23, 2009 12:00 am  

Ah, the Clinton years! The passing of time has replaced "Clinton fatigue" with a kind of bittersweet nostalgia for the days when Arkansas and Arkansans were front and center on the international stage.

Yes, scandal abounded - some of it real - but the United States also saw prosperity and relative peace. Bill Clinton's polarizing effect seemed extreme at the time but now seems to be situation normal in American politics. And his outsized flaws made for interesting reading and TV viewing during the '90s, though much of it R-rated.

Here we remember, in alphabetical order, some of the players in the Clinton saga.

1. Diane and Jim Blair
Diane Blair, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, was a close friend of the Clintons, particularly Hillary, having known them for decades. Blair's husband, Jim, was general counsel for Tyson Foods Inc. until his retirement in 2000.

Although the couple didn't join the Clintons in Washington, the Blairs, particularly Jim, came under the same white-hot scrutiny as almost every Clinton associate.

A 1994 New York Times article questioned the help Jim Blair gave Hillary in a 1978 commodities trade that netted her almost $100,000. The Wall Street Journal then went after Blair's finances, seeking to unseal a 1979 lawsuit Blair filed claiming he was defrauded of millions of dollars after the collapse of the cattle futures market.

No wrongdoing was ever found.

Diane Blair retired from the university in 1997 and died June 26, 2000, just days after a visit from the president, first lady and their daughter, Chelsea.

2. Herby Branscum& Robert Hill
Herby Branscum Jr., a Perryville lawyer, and Robert M. Hill, also of Perryville, were the only two targets of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr to win acquittal in the $52 million, seven-year investigation of a failed real estate venture, Whitewater Development Corp.

Branscum, appointed by Gov. Clinton to the Arkansas Highway Commission in 1991, caught the eye of Robert Fiske Jr., the first independent counsel, in 1994. Fiske started looking into the Clintons' finances and couldn't stop. He wanted to know about a $180,000 loan the Perry County Bank (now part of Farmers & Merchants Bank of Stuttgart) made to the Clintons for Bill Clinton's 1990 gubernatorial campaign. Branscum was a co-owner of the bank, along with Hill, and a former chairman of the state Democratic Party whom Clinton had reappointed to the state Banking Commission in '91.

Starr replaced Fiske in August 1994. Starr followed up on Fiske's investigation of the bankers. In 1996, a federal grand jury indicted Branscum and Hill on charges of violating bank laws by funneling money to various Arkansas political campaigns, though Clinton's was the only one named.

Partisan politics, Branscum and Hill said. A federal jury acquitted the two bankers on four of the 11 counts and deadlocked on the rest.



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