Heads Up or Cover Up?

March 04, 1994

Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Roger Altman, who is also acting director of the Resolution Trust Corporation, has recused himself from the RTC investigation into Madison Guaranty S&L. Why? Because he had to. The day before he acted it came out in a Senate committee hearing that in early February he had briefed White House staff members, including the White House chief counsel and Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff, on the course of the investigation. That was highly inappropriate. The RTC is an independent agency -- not part of the administration -- and the Madison Guaranty investigation involves charges that relate to President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton.

As one Republican senator put it: Can you imagine what would happen if a senator arranged for a RTC briefing for someone it was investigating?

The February briefing was not an isolated incident. Though Mr. Altman did not tell the committee, it has since been revealed that on at least two occasions last fall, Treasury Department officials, including Mr. Altman's first assistant, also briefed White House aides on the progress of the Madison investigation. This suggests an on-going operation in which some will suspect the worst: White House officials are not merely trying to keep up with but cope with an investigation that could be embarrassing, at the very least, to the first family and some friends and associates back in Arkansas. Mr. Altman said of the February meeting, "I'd describe it as a heads up." The suspicious are already describing it as part of "a cover up."

White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty has ordered his staff not to meet with RTC officials anymore. Like Mr. Altman's recusal, this comes too late to deserve credit. A year ago, when the Clinton administration was still young, improprieties could be attributed to inexperience. Many who closely follow Washington affairs did give the Clintons and their aides the benefit of the doubt when they very inappropriately interferred with the operations of the White House travel office.

Then came the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster -- another instance in which White House aides interfered with the investigation. If they didn't know any better then, they did last fall. Yet Mr. Altman seemingly didn't get it. Although the Foster suicide, Madison S&L operations and the Clinton family's real estate dealings are all interconnected in the Whitewater scandal, the deputy Treasury secretary kept finagling. With a vigorous independent counsel now on the case, perhaps the Clinton White House will get the message to keep hands off.

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