Nussbaum doesn't give Whitewater panel an inch

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Bernard W. Nussbaum sat before his interrogators yesterday fully armed -- with his own lawyers, his manuals on legal rules and, most important, his much-publicized "New York litigator" style.

In the grand finale to the Senate's round of Whitewater hearings, the former White House counsel defiantly -- and unrepentantly -- defended his actions in the days after the suicide of his former White House deputy, Vincent W. Foster Jr.


"It may sound arrogant, but on the big calls I was right," he insisted. "I made the right judgments."

Mr. Nussbaum resigned his White House position last year after questions were raised about his handling of other aspects of Whitewater.


He was questioned about conflicts between his testimony and that of other administration officials who have appeared before the Senate Whitewater committee during the past four weeks.

And as the hard-driving witness swatted at every accusation, innuendo and challenge raised by the committee's attorneys and its members, many of whom are lawyers themselves, yesterday's hearing quickly became a clash of legal gladiators -- and perhaps egos.

"If you're going to read from my deposition, you should be complete and you should be fair," Mr. Nussbaum admonished the counsel for the Republicans, Michael Chertoff.

"Mr. Nussbaum, I'm well aware of the rule of completeness," the majority counsel snapped back.

And so it went, with Mr. Nussbaum citing rules from the code of professional responsibility, waving a rule book on lawyer's professional conduct, questioning his questioners, telling the chairman he would "try not to be so combative" -- and not giving the committee an inch.

During the past several weeks, Justice Department and police officials have whetted the appetites of Republicans by accusing Mr. Nussbaum of having impeded a proper search of Mr. Foster's office and thus arousing suspicions that he was hiding something.

Former Deputy Attorney General Philip B. Heymann told the committee last week that Mr. Nussbaum reneged on an initial agreement to let Justice Department lawyers look at files, and instead forced the lawyers to sit in the office and watch as he sorted the files.

Mr. Nussbaum, a one-time federal prosecutor, said he didn't recall having any such agreement with Mr. Heymann.


And he held fast to his assertion that he exerted tight control over the search of Mr. Foster's office because he was doing "what good lawyers do" in trying to protect the privacy and confidences of his client -- in his case, the president.

His actions, he said, did not reflect an attempt to keep Whitewater files -- or others that may have been embarrassing to the Clintons -- out of unfriendly hands.

Opening statement

"I did not, nor, to my knowledge, did anyone else in the White House, destroy, mishandle or misappropriate any document in Vincent Foster's office," he said in a lengthy opening statement. "Everything that law enforcement officials asked for was turned over to them."

Some Nussbaum associates have defended his brusque treatment of police and Justice lawyers as a product of his aggressive, "New York litigator's" nature and his blind spot for public relations.

And Mr. Nussbaum, with some of his Senate combatants, played up the tough, New York lawyer theme.


"I'm always glad to see an able New York lawyer," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican, in his greeting to the witness.

But Mr. Shelby quickly dropped the courtesies and accused Mr. Nussbaum of having a "selective memory" and conducting a "sham search" of the Foster office. "The American people will never know really what was in that office," Mr. Shelby charged.

"Senator, every document in that office was preserved," Mr. Nussbaum responded. "No document was destroyed. That's what the American people should know."

Mr. Nussbaum denied that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton or her close friend Susan Thomases -- who had a phone conversation with Mr. Nussbaum the morning after Mr. Foster's death -- advised him to limit officials' access to the Foster office.

But he said Ms. Thomases raised the issue of the search with him, saying that she had heard there was "concern about the process." On Tuesday, Ms. Thomases testified that it was Mr. Nussbaum who had raised the subject.

Republicans have tried to prove that Ms. Thomases raised the issue with Mr. Nussbaum on behalf of Mrs. Clinton, who they say was calling the shots. Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, the committee chairman, said he plans to subpoena Ms. Thomases' phone records.


Mr. Nussbaum returns to the Senate committee today for at least one more day of grilling.

House panel plays tape

Across the Capitol, Jean Lewis, a criminal investigator with the Kansas City office of the Resolution Trust Corp., returned to the House Banking and Financial Services Committee for more questions about her examination of a failed savings and loan with ties to the Clintons and their Whitewater land deal.

Ms. Lewis testified on Tuesday that she believed top government officials tried to obstruct and manipulate her investigation of the thrift, Madison Guaranty.

Yesterday, Republicans played a tape recording of a February 1994 conversation between Ms. Lewis and Washington RTC official April Breslaw. They believe the tape shows that top officials tried to influence Ms. Lewis' conclusion that funds illegally diverted from Madison to Whitewater contributed to the collapse of the savings and loan.

"I think, if they can say it honestly, the head people . . . would like to be able to say Whitewater did not cause a loss to Madison," Ms. Breslaw says at one point in the tape.


After Democrats protested the fact that Ms. Breslaw had not been invited to tell her side of the story, Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, the committee chairman, acquiesced and said he would invite the RTC official to testify at today's hearing.