President 'concerned' by meetings on Whitewater

March 04, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton said for the first time yesterday that he was concerned about the appearance of impropriety stemming from meetings between White House and Treasury Department officials on the Whitewater affair.

The statement came as the Treasury's second-ranking official cut all ties to the continuing investigation, and the White House, hearing growing cries of "cover-up" from congressional Republicans and others, stepped up damage control efforts to try to keep Whitewater from blowing up into an uncontrolled political problem once again.

As those efforts continued, pressure built on the White House official who has direct responsibility for avoiding ethical lapses -- White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum. Despite widespread speculation, officials denied reports that Mr. Nussbaum intends to resign.

But two officials conceded that Mr. Nussbaum has been widely blamed for Mr. Clinton's renewed difficulties. "Nussbaum may be a smart guy," said one former administration official familiar with the Whitewater issues. "But he's tone deaf."

Senate Republicans, seeking to keep Whitewater alive, called for an investigation into the meetings between White House and Treasury officials and threatened to hold up the confirmation of the administration's choice for a senior banking regulatory position unless hearings are held.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman met last month with three White House officials to brief them on a Whitewater-related investigation by the Resolution Trust Corp., of which Mr. Altman is the acting director. The investigation involves Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Senior administration officials said yesterday that Mr. Altman will officially remain the RTC's acting director until the end of this month but that he has now canceled all RTC-related meetings and activities.

Last fall, Treasury officials held two other meetings with White House aides to discuss Whitewater-related matters. Officials at the Treasury Department and the White House insisted that those meetings involved nothing other than efforts to respond to inquiries from reporters.

Yesterday, Treasury Secretary Lloyd M. Bentsen issued a statement saying that he had ordered Treasury officials to have no further contact with the White House about Whitewater-related issues and had asked the independent Office of Government Ethics to examine the earlier meetings "to ensure that all ethical guidelines were followed."

The administration containment effort started with Mr. Clinton, who, in sharp contrast with his recent practice, gave reporters a lengthy answer when asked whether he was concerned about the appearance of improprieties in the case.

"The answer is yes, I'm concerned about that," he said. "As nearly as I can determine, no one has actually done anything wrong or attempted to improperly influence any government action, but I think it would be better if the meetings and conversations hadn't occurred."

Noting the several investigations of Whitewater-related affairs, Mr. Clinton said that "it's very, very important that while all this is going on, that the activity around it should be handled in such a way as to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.

"In addition to what the rules are, what I want the people here to understand is never mind what the rules are, bend over backward to avoid the appearance" of a problem.

Mr. Clinton's remarks were in sharp contrast to earlier statements by him and by top aides on Whitewater.

Until yesterday, they had brushed aside complaints about appearances, insisting that because no one has been proved to have engaged in wrongdoing, allegations about appearance vTC problems were simply politically motivated.

That earlier approach remained at the Justice Department, however, where Attorney General Janet Reno dismissed questions about Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell, a longtime Clinton friend from Arkansas.

The Washington Post reported earlier this week that Mr. Hubbell's former law firm, the Rose Law Firm of Little Rock, Ark., was investigating allegations that Mr. Hubbell had overbilled clients.

Mr. Hubbell has denied any overbilling.

Ms. Reno gave Mr. Hubbell a strong vote of personal confidence, saying: "I have been extraordinarily impressed with his honesty, his candor, his professionalism and the sacrifices he's making to serve the American people."

The attorney general said she had not asked anybody in the department to look into the matter. "At this point, all I know is that some unnamed source says that the law firm is looking at allegations of wrongdoing," she said.

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