Whitewater hearing reveals conflicting explanations for White House actions


WASHINGTON -- Recalling the night two years ago that his longtime friend Vincent W. Foster Jr. was found dead in a Virginia park, former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell choked back tears yesterday, telling a Senate panel that,"It was the worst day of my life."

The Senate's opening day of Whitewater hearings before a Republican-led investigative committee provided several noteworthy moments.

Mostly, it revealed two distinctly different explanations for the actions of White House aides after the suicide of the deputy White House counsel in July 1993, the subject of this round of hearings.

Republicans suggested that the White House tried to keep police from examining Mr. Foster's office because it contained revealing documents on the Clintons' tax problems involving their Whitewater real estate investment.

Democrats admitted that administration aides made mistakes in handling Mr. Foster's files, including keeping police at a distance while Bernard W. Nussbaum, then the White House counsel, went through the files.

But the lawmakers defended such missteps as the result of the extraordinary grief and trauma of the moment.

Hubbell, a friend and law partner of both Mr. Foster and Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas, bolstered their claim.

"I've had some tough times in the last two years, but that was the worst day of my life," said Hubbell, who recently received a 21-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to felony charges of mail fraud and tax evasion brought by the Whitewater independent counsel. The charges were unrelated to Whitewater.

Florida Republican Sen. Connie Mack projected on screens handwritten notes from the Foster files that White House aides turned over to the Clintons' personal lawyer --rather than to the U.S. Park Police, the agency investigating Mr. Foster's death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The notes suggest that Mr. Foster was worried that the Clintons risked an IRS audit if they claimed Whitewater losses on their 1992 taxes -- as they claimed publicly during the presidential campaign -- because there was little supporting documentation.

"What all of these documents tell me is that the White House certainly had reason to worry about a Department of Justice search of Vincent Foster's office," said Mr. Mack. "The documents tell me that, contrary to the assertions the White House has made, this is not a harmless issue of tax returns. Rather it's about the finances of Whitewater Development and the fact that Vince Foster couldn't square the first couple's public statements with reality."

North Carolina Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth, one of the administration's most strident critics on Whitewater, attacked the White House for giving the committee documents with portions whited-out.

"Any so-called cooperation from the White House has been like eating ice cream with knitting needles," he said. "If this is cooperation, I call it obstruction."

Democrats, led by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, said the administration's actions after Mr. Foster's suicide had to be put into the context of the circumstances.

"This was an extraordinarily traumatic situation in which people found themselves," said Mr. Sarbanes, the ranking Democrat on the panel.

He said it was reasonable for White House aides to keep from the police certain files from Mr. Foster's office. Many files were protected by executive privilege, such as a file on potential Supreme Court nominees, or, in the case of personal legal work for the Clintons, protected by attorney-client privilege, Mr. Sarbanes said.

New York Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato chaired the hearing with uncharacteristic conciliation.

But fireworks erupted when Republican Sen. Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska held up Mr. Foster's briefcase. Kenneth W. Starr, the Whitewater independent counsel, had given the briefcase to Republican majority on the committee, apparently without informing the panel's Democrats.

Mr. Murkowski used the briefcase to spotlight questionable actions by Mr. Nussbaum, such as when he first saw the briefcase, the White House counsel failed to see a torn-up note left by Mr. Foster. In the note, Mr. Foster laments the cruelty of political life in Washington.

Democrats were angered by the surprise appearance of the briefcase, saying it went against the spirit of bipartisanship both sides claimed to want.

"This is not the way to proceed," Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd said later. "If the independent counsel is going to be giving evidence to one side and not the other, then obviously you're going to have real questions raised about the objectivity of the independent counsel."

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