WASHINGTON -- On the eve of Congress' long-awaited inquiry into the Whitewater affair, the man most likely to wind up as the Clinton administration's "fall guy" took the offensive yesterday to insist that he did nothing wrong.
Roger C. Altman, the deputy treasury secretary, repeatedly asserted that he had done nothing either illegal or unethical in connection with Whitewater. He made his defense during an hourlong conference with two dozen journalists whom he invited to the Treasury Department to hear his side.
Mr. Altman is at the heart of suspicions -- fanned by Republicans in Congress -- that top Clinton administration officials may have misused their powers to keep the White House informed about federal investigations into the Whitewater real estate affair.
A series of contradictions between what Mr. Altman told the Senate last Feb. 25 about his role in the affair and what other senior Treasury officials recall has emerged in recent news reports leaked from Capitol Hill.
The reports suggest that Mr. Altman may have misled the Senate about the timing and substance of a meeting about Whitewater with White House officials. They also suggest that top Clinton aides pressed Mr. Altman to remain in charge of the Resolution Trust Corp. despite his conviction that doing so might be unethical. Mr. Altman denies both allegations.
Another recent report suggested that Mr. Altman was informed in March 1993 by then-RTC Vice President William Roelle about the Justice Department's pending criminal investigation into Madison Guaranty, a savings and loan association that helped fund Whitewater. Mr. Altman said yesterday that he has no memory of such a briefing.
"I firmly believe that he did not do so. That is my recollection," Mr. Altman said.
One measure of the trouble Mr. Altman faces was evident yesterday when President Clinton issued a one-line statement in his defense: "[Treasury] Secretary [Lloyd] Bentsen and I believe that Roger Altman has been an excellent deputy treasury secretary, and we want him to continue in that capacity."
But Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., the ranking minority member of the Banking Committee, said yesterday that "there are some glaring inconsistencies between what [Mr. Altman] told us [the Senate Banking panel] earlier and what he has since said about when and what he knew about the contacts" between banking regulators and White House aides).
Two panels will begin hearings on Whitewater this week, the House Banking Committee beginning today and the Senate Banking Committee Friday.
MR. Altman, who has known Mr. Clinton since they attended Georgetown University together in the 1960s, was acting head of the RTC from 1993 until Feb. 25 this year.
In fall 1992, the RTC asked the Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation into financial transactions by Madison Guaranty of Little Rock, Ark. Madison financed the Whitewater land-development scheme in which Mr. Clinton and his wife were partners and also may have channeled funds improperly to his 1984 gubernatorial campaign.