In a Reversal, Clinton Vows to Flout Subpoena for Notes: Supreme Court Appeal Could Delay Whitewater Probe

Article excerpt

In a reversal of President Clinton's promise to cooperate in the Whitewater investigation, the White House yesterday took a first step to a Supreme Court showdown, saying it would seek an order to block the release of notes to prosecutors on talks its lawyers had with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff had claimed attorney-client privilege in refusing to turn over the notes to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr on conversations the first lady had on the Whitewater investigation.

Mr. Ruff said he is confident the court will hear the case before its term ends in June.

In their ruling last month, Judges Pasco Bowman and Roger Wollman of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis said, "The strong public interest in honest government and in exposing wrongdoing by public officials would be ill-served by recognition" of the attorney-client privilege "in criminal proceedings inquiring into actions of public officials."

It would be "a gross misuse of public assets" to allow any part of the government to use its in-house attorneys as a "shield against the production of information relevant to a federal criminal investigation."

Judge Richard Kopf, dissenting, said Mrs. Clinton had the right to invoke attorney-client privilege and that the notes "were not intended to be revealed to third parties."

The Clinton administration decision to ask the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court ruling, made on an appeal from the U.S. District Court in Little Rock, escalates an increasingly bitter standoff between the administration, which says the Clintons are not guilty of any wrongdoing in the Whitewater affair, and Mr. Starr's office, tasked with determining whether the first couple broke the law in a questionable Arkansas land deal and later obstructed justice in trying to cover it up.

The notes include conversations Mrs. Clinton had with former White House Special Counsel Jane Sherburne during and after Miss Sherburne's Jan. 26, 1996, appearance before the Whitewater grand jury in Washington, and with Associate Counsel Miriam R. Nemetz on July 11, 1995, on the first lady's ties to White House meetings in the aftermath of the July 1993 death of Deputy Counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr.

Seven other sets of notes involving Mrs. Clinton and White House lawyers also have been withheld. They involve the first lady's interviews with prosecutors in June 1994, April 1995 and July 1995. The White House appears only to be ready to challenge the release of the Sherburne and Nemetz notes.

Filings in the case, which the appeals court panel ordered unsealed, show the White House - despite numerous claims it was cooperating in the Whitewater investigation - has refused to produce documents involving Mrs. Clinton and sought by Mr. Starr on various executive-privilege, attorney-client and work-product claims.

Mr. Ruff charged that the court's ruling "undercuts this president's and all future presidents' ability to seek candid and confidential legal advice."

"We believe attorney-client privilege is a privilege that applies not only to the president and White House counsel, but to all government lawyers and employees, and it's always been treated that way," Mr. Ruff said.

He said he will ask the court to review the matter on an urgent basis and will file his petition by Friday. …