WASHINGTON -- The White House said last night that personal financial files of President Clinton and his wife were removed from the office of Vincent W. Foster Jr. after his suicide before federal investigators had a chance to examine them.
Mark D. Gearan, the White House director of communications, said the files that were removed included documents relating to the Clintons' personal tax returns and their investment in an unsuccessful real estate company, the Whitewater Development Corp., which is a subject of the federal investigation into a failed savings and loan in Arkansas.
At the direction of the White House counsel, Bernard W. Nussbaum, Mr. Gearan said, personal files of Mr. Foster, a deputy White House counsel who shot himself on July 20, were also removed without being shown to investigators.
Mr. Gearan's statement provided a solid link between Mr. Foster, a longtime personal friend of the Clintons who had handled many of their financial dealings, and Whitewater, which has been a topic of intense interest from news organizations as details of the federal investigation have become known in recent months.
The disclosure raised as many questions as it answered -- notably, why the White House waited so long to acknowledge the existence and the removal of the Whitewater files.
A Justice Department spokesman said last night that the department had not yet been officially informed that the papers had been in Mr. Foster's possession. Investigators complained last week that the White House was being uncooperative in helping to determine if the files even existed.
A senior White House official who would speak only if not identified said last night that the Clintons would "cooperate fully" with a Justice Department investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Foster. But the official added that "we would reserve the right to invoke certain principles if appropriate."
"The president and the first lady are entitled to the same privileges as other citizens when it comes to their personal records," he said. "Lawyer-client privilege still exists."
Legally, several lawyers said, there is little doubt about the applicability of that privilege, although it would be difficult to withhold documents from a criminal investigation.
Whitewater Development was created in 1978 by James McDougal, who owned the failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan; his wife, Susan; Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. The four had equal shares, but the Clintons have insisted that their role was passive, and that Mr. McDougal made all the investment decisions.
The intent, Mr. McDougal has said, was to buy lots in the Ozarks and sell them for second homes. In interviews in 1992, Mr. McDougal asserted that he contributed a disproportionate share the money to a venture in which both couples were to share profits equally.
In an interview last night, Mr. Nussbaum concurred with Mr. Gearan's account of the division of the records in Mr. Foster's office.
"I acted like any lawyer worth his salt would act," Mr. Nussbaum said. "The Clintons' personal legal files went to their personal attorneys. The Fosters' personal files went to their personal attorneys, and the files for Vince's White House work stayed in the counsel's office."
White House officials insisted last night that the president had the right to maintain control over his personal files and that investigators would have to direct their requests for that information to Mr. Kendall.
The Justice Department spokesman declined to say last night if the department would seek access to the files.