Whitewater Papers Reveal '94 Scramble: Aides Feared Clintons' Civil Liabilities

Article excerpt

Anxious White House officials met daily in January 1994 to discuss appointment of a special counsel in the Whitewater probe and were concerned that a separate inquiry of a failed Arkansas thrift by government regulators could expose President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton to civil liabilities.

According to records released yesterday by the special Senate Whitewater committee, White House officials at a Jan. 10, 1994, meeting were concerned that an investigation by a special counsel could focus on "friends and associates" of Mr. Clinton and investigators could "squeeze them," leading to possible indictments.

A White House response team, known as the "Whitewater group," also discussed the first couple's potential exposure in a Resolution Trust Corp. inquiry of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan Association and the Rose Law Firm, asking if Mr. or Mrs. Clinton could be held liable for losses when the thrift was closed in 1989.

Questions have surfaced on whether the White House improperly blocked the recusal of Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman as acting head of the RTC in the Whitewater matter, fearing that a subordinate of his had been aggressive in past thrift cases and would vigorously pursue Madison and the Rose firm.

Mr. Altman had gone to the White House to announce his recusal but was talked out of it by White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum. That conversation, according to the records, occurred after Mr. and Mrs. Clinton had talked separately with the Whitewater group's leader, Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, about their "exposure" in the RTC probe.

Concern over the pending Whitewater probes was so great that meetings sometimes were held twice a day, the records show.

A daylong review of the records by the Senate panel sparked angry confrontations between Mr. Ickes and committee Republicans and bitter challenges by Democrats, who argued that the ongoing hearings were politically motivated and had uncovered little new information. The papers, more than 100 pages, included Mr. Ickes' handwritten notes and other documents.

Republicans, led by Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, the committee's chairman, charged that the White House had not been forthcoming in releasing documents, noting that records sought under subpoena since October were still being "discovered." He also said testimony by some administration officials had not been believable.

At one point he laughed at Mr. Ickes, and when asked by the White House official if the chairman thought his testimony was "funny," Mr. D'Amato responded: "I think it's laughable. Your testimony is a joke . . . it doesn't hold the light of day."

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, said that while it was "regrettable" that some White House documents had been turned over late, there was no information to suggest they had been withheld. He said the hearings had produced no evidence of wrongdoing by the White House in the Whitewater affair.

Mr. Dodd criticized plans by Republicans to ask the full Senate next week to extend the hearings past a Feb. 29 deadline set when the panel was created. He said there was "nothing of substance that would justify an extension," adding that "we are treading water on Whitewater."

Democrats rolled out their public-relations big gun with the appearance of Washington lawyer Bob Bennett, who represents Mr. Ickes. Mr. Bennett was quick to step to reporters' microphones during a break to say the panel had failed to establish any credible case that the White House did anything improper with regard to its interest in the Whitewater matter. …