Whitewater Offers Little To Hurt Clinton Image

Clinton team glides through first week of hearings, but next could be tougher

SO far, the on-going hearings of the House and Senate banking committees have produced a picture of a Clinton administration that talked a little too much to itself about Whitewater.

But the hearings have not yet produced any evidence of pressure or interference by the administration in Whitewater investigations.

The lack of news has been a minor victory for the administration. The hearings thus far are unlikely to have deepened concern in an issue the public is largely weary of.

This week may be stickier. Top officials of the Treasury department will be called as witnesses who have in some instances contradicted each other's statements. Treasury officials also bear the brunt of allegations that they improperly contacted the White House about investigations with possible Whitewater connections.

In particular, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Roger Altman testified to the Senate Banking Committee Feb. 2 that he had briefed White House officials on one occasion on the general procedures of investigations of the Resolution Trust Corporation.

Mr. Altman was temporary head of the RTC at the time, and the RTC had referred the case of the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan - with its Whitewater connection to the Clintons - to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.

In early March, Altman revised his testimony several times by letter to add details of further meetings with White House officials.

Government lawyers consider it improper for independent agencies to discuss their investigations with the White House when the White House itself is a subject of the investigation. This is because the White House holds power over the agencies and the senior officials there.

Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee alleged on Friday that Altman misused his inside knowledge of the investigation to tip off the White House.

White House aide Harold Ickes testified to the House Banking Committee last week that Altman had told White House officials that the statute of limitations on the Madison case would expire Feb. 28.

This information could have allowed the White House to let the statute of limitation lapse on the case, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York charged on Friday.

In fact, the statute of limitations was extended for all savings and loan cases, Madison included.

The core defense the White House and its Democratic allies are using is that while some of their conversations may have been ``inappropriate,'' in White House counsel Lloyd Cutler's word, no investigation of Whitewater-related matters has ever been curtailed or limited.

The focus of the Senate hearings Friday was the apparent suicide of White House aide Vincent Foster last summer. The testimony may have helped further clear the air surrounding that tragedy.

Some of the Republican questioners found themselves picking at slim straws of suspicion.

When Webster Hubbell, then deputy attorney general and a close friend of Foster and his family, arrived at the scene where Foster's sister was being questioned, he gave her a hug and led her away from a Park Police detective. Some senators seemed to be probing whether he was trying to block the investigation.

President Clinton wanted to return Foster's personal effects to Mrs. Foster in person. But they were in a locker. The key was in a locked desk drawer of a detective out of the office. The park police were finished examining and recording the effects as evidence. Because the suggestion was made to break the desk drawer open, a move that turned out to be unnecessary, some senators seemed to imply White House urgency to remove evidence.

The Democrats have stretched credibility a bit as well. Most of the conversations that took place with White House staff concerning Whitewater investigations have been explained in hearings as an attempt to anticipate and respond to press inquiries. But the concern of the White House, as is apparent in documents as well as their behavior with press at the time, was often to tell the press as little as was feasible.

Especially in the House hearings, Republicans have been frustrated by time limits on questioning.

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