WASHINGTON — AN hour before midnight on July 20, 1993, Patsy Thomasson opened the door to Vincent Foster's office, clicked on the lights, and started shuffling documents. Minutes later, she was joined by Margaret Williams, Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff, and White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum.
Together, this trio of Clinton aides stayed in Foster's office 45 minutes, looking, they say, for some indication of why the president's deputy counsel - a friend and colleague - drove to a park in Virginia after work that day and killed himself.
Yet to outsiders, this search, and subsequent attempts to limit police access to Foster's files, suggest that these officials may have had darker motives.
In hearings this week, a Senate panel reexamined these events as part of an ongoing inquiry into the Clintons' role in a controversial real estate venture known as Whitewater. Since Foster handled the Whitewater case for the Clintons, Republicans say, conditions were ripe for a coverup.
While some Clinton supporters denounce the Republican-led hearings as a political ploy, troubling discrepancies arose during the testimony about the days and hours following Foster's death.
On July 20 at 5:45 p.m., National Park Service police discover Foster's body in Fort Marcy Park with a .38 caliber pistol at his fingertips. Upon learning Foster's identity, the park police contact the Secret Service, which in turn pages Clinton aide David Watkins at a movie theater. Mr. Watkins notifies chief of staff Thomas McLarty who tells the Clintons.Park police pick up Watkins and drive 15 minutes to Foster's Georgetown home to notify Foster's wife, Lisa. On the way, the first snag in testimony occurs: Park Police Officer Cheryl Braun insists that she told Watkins to lock Foster's office. Watkins says he never heard that request.
After delivering the tragic news to Foster's family, Watkins testified that he spoke with Mrs. Foster and Mr. McLarty about if Foster left a suicide note in his office.
At 10:34 p.m., without notifying park police, Clinton aide Watkins pages his assistant, Patsy Thomasson, at the Sequoia restaurant in Georgetown. Ms. Thomasson testified that Watkins said nothing about files, only asked her to go to the White House to look for a note. Thomasson, an old and trusted friend of the Clintons, hails a cab and arrives at the White House 15 minutes later.
Meanwhile, Hillary Rodham Clinton, en route to Washington from California aboard Air Force One, calls her top aide, Ms. Williams. According to Williams's testimony, Mrs. Clinton told her of Foster's death but gave her no specific instructions. Still, Williams heads to the White House.
At 11 p.m., Thomasson, who has not yet received a security clearance, enters Foster's office and begins, in her words, conducting a brief search for a suicide note. She is joined by Williams and Mr. Nussbaum. After a 10-minute search, Thomasson leaves to call Watkins. And Williams's assistant, Evelyn Lieberman, enters the room. By all accounts, the door to Foster's office remains open for 35 minutes.
Then comes the second puzzle. When Nussbaum, Williams, and Lieberman leave the room at 11:41 p.m., a uniformed secret service agent on duty that night, Henry O'Neill, testified that Williams carried a five-inch stack of folders in her arms, and possibly a small box on top of it, to her own office. In adamant testimony Wednesday, Williams denied removing anything.
Later that night, the seeds of another controversy sprouted. White House phone records show that Hillary Clinton placed calls to both Williams and her close friend and sometimes-adviser Susan Thomases - calls that become significant the next day.
The morning of July 21, top White house aides met in Watkins's office, and Nussbaum took charge. Posting a guard at Foster's office door, Nussbaum denied a formal request by the park police to search it, citing national security concerns and executive and attorney-client privilege.
Yet that decision might not have been Nussbaum's alone. Phone records show that Ms. Thomases made a rapid succession of nine calls to the White House at or near the time of the meeting.
In a deposition to the Senate committee, White House lawyer Steve Neuwirth stated that he heard from Nussbaum that Mrs. Clinton had told Thomases that she did not want investigators rifling through Foster's office and that something should be done about sensitive papers.
THE events that follow look like stonewalling. Park Police are made to wait in vain in the White House basement. They complain to the Interior Department, who notifies the Justice Department. Former Justice official Webster Hubbel tells Nussbaum he ought to ''think about staying out of this.'' Nussbaum apparently agrees to let Justice lawyers search Foster's files the following day.
Still on July 22, Nussbaum changes his mind. He demands that two Justice Department lawyers and two park police officers sit at a distance while he conducts his own search of Foster's files. At that meeting, he quickly flips over Foster's briefcase and pronounces it empty.
Upon learning of this search, deputy attorney Gen. Philip Heymann calls Nussbaum and tells him he was ''messing this up very badly'' and ''making a terrible mistake'' by refusing access to the Justice Department.
In later days, more events clouded the picture. Despite two searches, it was not until six days after Foster's suicide that a White House official found a distraught note in Foster's briefcase torn in 27 pieces. In another twist, the note was not delivered to the Justice Department until 30 hours after its discovery.
In addition, testimony reveals that many of the Clintons' personal files were moved from Foster's office and locked in a closet for five days before being sent to the Clintons' personal lawyer. Other documents show that Foster worried considerably about the Whitewater case, calling it at one point ''a can of worms you shouldn't open.''