Reno was 'worried,' Senate hearing told


WASHINGTON -- The notes of a presidential aide, revealed at yesterday's Senate Whitewater hearing, show that Attorney General Janet Reno was among those who were uneasy about the White House's actions after the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. two years ago.

Ms. Reno was "worried" that it had taken four days for investigators to find in Mr. Foster's briefcase a torn-up note he had written lamenting the cruelty of political life in Washington, according to the notes and testimony of Mark Gearan, the White House communications director. The attorney general was also concerned that the White House had taken a day to release the note to the Justice Department.

At the heart of the hearings is whether the White House obstructed justice in how it conducted the search of Mr. Foster's office and handled documents after his death.

Yesterday, Sen. Lauch Faircloth, the panel's most strident critic of the White House, urged the Republican committee chairman, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, to call Hillary Rodham Clinton to testify. Mr. Faircloth, a North Carolina Republican, maintains that she might have played a role in barring police and Justice Department lawyers from examining documents in Mr. Foster's office.

But Mr. D'Amato of New York said he did not intend to call her "unless there is clear and convincing facts and reasons that necessitate the first lady's appearance."

At a breakfast meeting with reporters yesterday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that he was not persuaded that Mr. Foster had committed suicide.

"I'm not convinced that he didn't," the Georgia Republican said. "I'm just not convinced he did. I believe there are plausible grounds to wonder what happened."

Afterward, Mr. Gingrich's office quickly backpedaled, calling the White House to explain that the speaker was not calling for a new investigation. The death has been

ruled a suicide by the U.S. Park Police and by the first Whitewater independent counsel, and Mr. D'Amato has accepted that conclusion.

Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary, also played down Mr. Gingrich's comments. "I don't think he's had time to watch all the evidence gathered that allows him to say sufficiently one way or another that he's convinced of certain aspects of the matter," he said.

Yesterday's hearing brought four current and former White House aides -- including Patsy L. Thomasson, one of the three people who entered Mr. Foster's the night of his death -- before the committee.

Ms. Thomasson gave the first public description of what she, White House counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum and Margaret Williams, the first lady's chief of staff, did that night.

Ms. Thomasson said she entered the Foster office at the request of her boss, David Watkins, who asked her to look for a suicide note. She said she asked Mr. Nussbaum to enter the office with her. She testified that she sat at Mr. Foster's desk, looking, unsuccessfully, for a note.

Ms. Thomasson said that Mr. Nussbaum paced back and forth, "visibly grieving," and that Ms. Williams sat "crying and grieving."

Asked if anyone removed any documents from that office that night, she replied, "No sir."

Questioned about his notes, Mr. Gearan said they were made after a talk with Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann. He said they discussed how to inform the media about the torn-up note found by a White House aide four days after a search of Mr. Foster's office.

The notes say Mr. Heymann had "heated discussions" with Mr. Nussbaum about how documents were handled. And they suggest concern among Justice Department officials that the White House controlled the search of Mr. Foster's office.

Today's testimony is likely to become a face-off between two officials with conflicting stories. Up first is Henry P. O'Neill, a Secret Service agent who has said he saw Ms. Williams leave Mr. Foster's office the night of his death carrying papers.

Ms. Williams, who denies taking anything from the office that night, is also scheduled to testify.

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