National Legal and Policy Center - Lawsuit V. Hillary Healthcare Task Force

Lawsuit V. Hillary Healthcare Task Force

NLPC was a plaintiff in the successful 1993 lawsuit to open the meetings and records of Hillary Rodham Clinton's health care task force. Although the lawsuit was about the secrecy of the task force, it resulted in controversy for the task force itself and helped undermine support for task force’s eventual proposals.

The effort to open the task force received positive editorial support not only from the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, but also from the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today. In her 2004 book, Living History, Hillary Rodham Clinton called the lawsuit “a deft political move, designed to disrupt our work on health care and foster an impression with the public and the news media that we were conducting ‘secret’ meetings.” In his 2003 book, The Clinton Wars, Former White House aide Sidney Blumenthal wrote that NLPC had drawn “first blood” in the health care fight. On February 24, 1993, Hillary Rodham Clinton and the six Cabinet members serving on the task force were sued under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by NLPC, along with two other groups, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and the American Council for Health Care Reform. FACA requires government task forces to conduct its affairs in public if non-government employees, or “outsiders,” take part.

Robert Pear of the New York Times reported the next day that, "Mrs. Clinton, a longtime supporter of liberal causes and ‘public interest law,’ might be hoist with her own petard," and quoted NLPC Peter Flaherty, "The regime of openness in government has been built by a lot of people sympathetic to Hillary Clinton. Now she would just sweep away those statutes because they are inconvenient to her." In a March 3, 1993 deposition, task force director Ira Magaziner claimed that all participants in the health care task force were government employees, which turned out to be false. Even if the courts ruled that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s participation would not trigger FACA, the presence of other "outsiders" would. Magaziner took no action to correct the record.

On March 10, 1993, Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that the task force had to open its meetings to the plaintiffs and the media. The New York Times called the ruling a "rebuff to the President." USA Today reported it was "embarrassing." In reality, it was a split decision. Lamberth ruled that the "official" members of the task force, meaning the First Lady and the Cabinet Secretaries who comprised its membership, could not meet in secret because Clinton was not a government employee. But Lamberth also ruled that all the other people working on the plan, who were organized into "sub-groups," could continue to work in secret, because FACA was never meant to apply to staff.

That evening, ABC's Nightline hosted a debate between NLPC President Peter Flaherty and White House aide George Stephanopoulos. The ruling had exploded the larger issue, namely Hillary's role in the White House. Flaherty said that members of Congress "were walking on eggshells" when Hillary was around. He also said to host Ted Koppel, "What a lot of Americans are worried about, Ted, is that we now have an American version of Imelda Marcos, wielding vast influence behind the scenes, with little accountability to the American people."

Lamberth's ruling was appealed by the White House, and was overturned on June 22, 1993 after the task force had supposedly already disbanded on May 30. Justice Department lawyers argued that since Hillary Rodham Clinton "functions in both a legal and practical sense as part of the government," her participation in the task force should not trigger FACA. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed. But The Appeals Court also opened the door for the discovery of Ira Magaziner's false representations. The judges asked Judge Lamberth to go back and determine the composition of the working groups, a move that gave the plaintiffs access to task force documents.

Eventually, 250 boxes containing 500,000 documents would be released. When they were reviewed, not only did they show that the task force had twice as many participants as the 511 people claimed by the Administration, but that many of them were not government employees at all, but lobbyists and private individuals representing a host of special interests.

On December 21, 1994, Judge Lamberth accused Magaziner of lying and asked Attorney General Janet Reno and U.S. Attorney Eric Holder for a criminal investigation. Reno announced on March 3, 1995 that she would not appoint an independent prosecutor. On August 3, 1995, Eric Holder announced that he too would not prosecute Magaziner.

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