WASHINGTON -- One of the more mysterious figures in the Whitewater controversy, Clinton aide Patsy Thomasson, was summoned to Capitol Hill yesterday for what should have been a routine hearing about the White House payroll.
But the Whitewater saga -- particularly the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster Jr. -- lapped around the edges of nearly every Republican query.
During more than two hours of testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee, Ms. Thomasson, director of the White House Office of Administration, confirmed that she was among those who entered Mr. Foster's office the night of his suicide last summer.
"I would like nothing better than to tell you what I did in that office that night," a defiant Ms. Thomasson told Republicans, saying she didn't want to speak "out of school" in light of the investigation by a special prosecutor and impending congressional hearings into Whitewater. "I would like nothing more in the world!"
Ms. Thomasson -- a member of the administration's dwindling Arkansas gang -- was present in the Foster office on the night of his death last summer, along with then-White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum and Margaret Williams, chief of staff to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Ms. Thomasson was reported in one news account to have been searching for the combination to the safe in Mr. Foster's office.
She said yesterday that, although a security officer on her staff has a record of those combinations, she does not have access to such combinations, nor has she ever requested that information.
Although a behind-the-scenes player in Washington, Ms. Thomasson is a longtime Clinton associate -- she chaired the Arkansas Highway Commission when he was governor -- who has surfaced on the periphery of several imbroglios.
She was at the controversial White House meeting last May with FBI officials that led to the abrupt firing of seven members of the White House travel office staff. And she is the former head of a Little Rock investment group -- owned by Don Lasater, an Arkansas bond trader who was convicted of drug dealing -- now being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for possible insider trading.
What's more, until recently, she served in the White House with only a temporary pass, as have other high-ranking officials, including chief of staff Thomas "Mack" McLarty III and press secretary Dee Dee Myers.
Democrats and Republicans grilled Ms. Thomasson about the administration's lax security clearance operation that has allowed staff members to work at the White House for more than a year, in some cases with access to classified information, without full FBI background checks.
Republican Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, who started asking the White House about its security procedures last July, seized upon the administration's foot-dragging as an example of what he called its disregard for procedures and accountability.
"As in so many other instances, the truth is dragged out of this White House in dribs and drabs," said Mr. Wolf, adding that he intends to ask for a General Accounting Office investigation into the security clearance issue.
"I'll tell you, the Nixon administration did a lot of bad things," said Mr. Wolf, who was an Interior Department official under Mr. Nixon. "At times, you'd just say, 'What is going on over there?' I'm feeling the same way here."
Subcommittee chairman Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said that he and fellow Democrats, too, had "very serious concerns" about White House staff members having access, even inadvertently, to classified information without having received full security clearance.
Ms. Thomasson, who joined the administration 14 months ago but received her permanent pass within the past three weeks, said the White House was beginning to remedy the situation. She said that, as of this week, all current White House employees had at least passed preliminary background checks and had submitted the necessary paperwork for a full-scale FBI security check.
"We don't think we have any Aldrich Ameses at the White House," she said, referring to the CIA official recently accused of espionage. "But we certainly could."