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Webster Lee (Webb) Hubbell was a college football star and then a lawyer who became mayor of Little Rock (Pulaski County) and chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Hubbell was associate attorney general of the United States, the number-three job in the Department of Justice under his friend President Bill Clinton, but he resigned in 1994 and was convicted of defrauding his former partners at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock. Further investigations and indictments followed him until 1999. During eighteen months in prison and afterward, Hubbell turned to writing—first a memoir and then legal thrillers.
Webb Hubbell was born on January 18, 1948, in Little Rock to Webster Edward Hubbell, who was a construction engineer, and Virginia Erwin Hubbell. Because his father worked on various large construction projects, Hubbell moved around the South with his parents and two sisters. The family returned to Little Rock when Hubbell was a junior in high school, and he enrolled at Hall High School, where he began playing football and became a star lineman.
Hubbell won a scholarship to the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), where his size—he was a gangling 6'5" tall—and prowess attracted attention. The Arkansas Razorbacks were co-champions of the Southwest Conference his senior year and beat the previously undefeated University of Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl. The Chicago Bears of the National Football League drafted him, but a knee injury early in his senior season would not heal, and he gave up a professional career.
He had graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1970, but after spending a year in various jobs, he returned to UA to attend law school. He received a law degree with honors. While in law school, he met and married Suzanna Ward of Little Rock, who was an undergraduate at the time. They had a son and three daughters.
In 1973, he joined the Rose Law Firm. He was assigned to the litigation section, where he was recognized for his ability to negotiate settlements in tough cases. When Bill Clinton was elected state attorney general in 1976, Hubbell, along with Vincent W. Foster Jr. and Herbert C. Rule, recruited Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham, who was a UA law professor at the time, to join the Rose Law Firm. They also persuaded the partners and associates to admit her. She worked in the litigation section with them, and Hubbell became a close friend and golfing companion of the future governor and president.
In 1978, Hubbell was appointed to a vacancy on the Little Rock City Board of Directors. The next year, the directors elected him as the city’s mayor, and he held that largely ceremonial position until 1981. No longer mayor, Hubbell was reelected to the board and served until 1984. When Richard B. Adkisson, chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, abruptly resigned, Governor Clinton appointed Hubbell to the vacant position. He served less than a year and then returned to the law firm.
Although he had no position in Clinton’s gubernatorial administration, Hubbell was an unpaid adviser and aide for most of Clinton’s last ten years in office, drafting and reviewing bills for the governor during legislative sessions. In 1990, Hubbell drafted an initiated act that created a five-member state ethics commission to enforce ethics rules for legislators and other government officials. It was ratified at the 1990 election.
When Clinton was elected president in 1992, he brought his friends Hubbell and Foster to Washington DC. Hubbell first went to the Justice Department as liaison with the White House, vetting candidates for attorney general (Clinton’s first two nominees withdrew after disclosures they had not paid Social Security taxes for household employees) and other cabinet positions. After floating Hubbell’s name as a possible attorney general, Clinton nominated him for associate attorney general, the third-ranking official in the department and head of all the civil divisions. Hubbell’s nomination faced a challenge in the Senate Judiciary Committee because of his close ties to the Clintons. Another problem was his membership in the Little Rock Country Club, which had had no black members (Hubbell had resigned his membership about the time that the club accepted its first black member). The Senate confirmed him in April 1993.
Hubbell and Attorney General Janet Reno were involved in the planning for the infamous fifty-one-day siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. The siege ended on April 19, 1993, in explosions and a fire that killed seventy-six members of the religious cult, including its leader, David Koresh, and numerous children. Both Reno and Hubbell had resisted calls from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) for a tear-gas attack on the compound. Instead of tear gas, Hubbell had urged the use of skunk oil, a sickening potion used by Arkansas turkey hunters, to drive the Davidians out, but the FBI found the plan ridiculous. In Hubbell’s office, Reno capitulated and authorized the final assault, but she said no pyrotechnic devices were to be used. It was revealed six years later that such devices had, in fact, been used.
Hubbell’s friend Foster, depressed by attacks on him in the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets, committed suicide on July 20, 1993, in Fort Marcy Park in suburban Virginia. Clinton acceded to Republican demands that an independent counsel be appointed to investigate Foster’s death, as well as the Clintons’ dealings with a Marion County land development called Whitewater Development Corporation. The independent counsel also investigated other controversies in Clinton’s campaign and his early presidency, including Hillary Clinton’s firing of the White House travel office staff.
Partners at the Rose Law Firm turned over to U.S. attorneys in Little Rock evidence that Hubbell had defrauded the firm by padding his billings and expense account. The Justice Department turned the matter over to the Whitewater independent counsel, Robert B. Fiske. In April 1994, Hubbell resigned as associate attorney general to shield the Justice Department from the controversy and to seek a civil resolution of the billing complaint. In December 1994, Hubbell pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of tax fraud in connection with the billings. U.S. District Judge George E. Howard sentenced him to twenty-one months in prison. Hubbell admitted that he had submitted bills to the law firm more than 400 times from 1989 to 1992 to cover personal expenses. He served eighteen months in a federal prison in Maryland and a halfway house and was released in February 1997.
Fiske’s successor as the Whitewater prosecutor, Kenneth W. Starr, assumed Hubbell had secrets about the Clintons’ activities and continued to pursue him, mainly for consulting work he did in Washington after his conviction. In 1998, Hubbell, his wife, his accountant, and his attorney were indicted for conspiracy, tax evasion, and mail fraud. Hubbell had provided documents to Starr as part of an immunity agreement, but Starr used the information to obtain the indictments. A federal judge for the District of Columbia threw out the charges, however, because Starr had overstepped his authority. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the judge’s ruling 8–1.
Starr obtained a grand jury indictment of Hubbell a third time in November 1998, this time for allegedly giving false testimony to federal banking regulators and the House of Representatives Banking Committee. On Starr’s last day as prosecutor, June 30, 1999, Hubbell pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to disclose a potential conflict of interest ten years earlier. He was sentenced to a year of probation in exchange for the prosecutor dropping all charges against his wife, his attorney, and his accountant, as well as an agreement that the independent counsel would never bring charges against him again.
After a liver transplant in 2010 that enabled him to recover from a rare form of hepatitis, Hubbell moved with his wife to Charlotte, North Carolina, where their daughter lived, and he began to write fiction. While he was in prison, Hubbell had written an autobiography, Friends in High Places (1997), of which Starr had unsuccessfully sought to stop publication. By 2016, Beaufort Books had published three of Hubbell’s legal mysteries. When Men Betray (2014) and Ginger Snaps (2015) are both set in Little Rock, while A Game of Inches (2016) is set in Washington DC. Hubbell also wrote a twice-monthly political column for the online Clyde Fitch Report.
For additional information:Clinton, Bill. My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Final Report of the Independent Counsel in Regards to the Whitewater Investigation. Vol. III, Part C. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, January 5, 2001.
Hubbell, Webster. Friends in High Places: Our Journey from Little Rock to Washington, D.C. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1997.
“Interview with Justice Webster Lee Hubbell.” Arkansas Supreme Court Project. Arkansas Supreme Court Historical Society. https://courts.arkansas.gov/sites/default/files/Webb%20Hubbell%20final%20transcript.pdf (accessed December 1, 2015).
Johnston, David. “Clinton Associate Quits Justice Post as Pressure Rises.” New York Times, March 15, 1994, p. 1.
Labaton, Stephen. “In Slap at Starr, a Judge Dismisses Hubbell Tax Case.” New York Times, July 2, 1998, p. 1.
———. “Webster Hubbell, Confidant of Clintons, Indicted on Tax Charges.” New York Times, May 1, 1998, p. 1.
U.S. Department of Justice. “Report to the Deputy Attorney General on the Events at Waco, Texas.” October 8, 1993. Online at http://www.justice.gov/publications/waco/report-deputy-attorney-general-events-waco-texas (accessed November 24, 2015).
Ernest Dumas Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 9/15/2017
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