White House counsel quits over Whitewater

March 06, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- White House Counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum, the $500-an-hour Wall Street lawyer who came to Washington at the request of an old friend, resigned yesterday -- a casualty of the investigation into the Whitewater Development Corp.

Mr. Nussbaum's resignation, characterized by other White House aides as a forced departure, is effective April 5.

"At all times I conducted . . . the duties of Counsel to the President in an absolutely legal and ethical manner," Mr. Nussbaum asserted in a letter to President Clinton.

"Unfortunately, as a result of controversy generated by those who do not understand, nor wish to understand, the role and obligations of a lawyer . . . I now believe I can best serve you by returning to private life."

In reply, Mr. Clinton wrote that he accepted the resignation with "deep regret," but in the past week he has not mounted a strong defense of his counsel against the controversy surrounding Whitewater's land venture in Arkansas.

Special Counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr. is probing the failure of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan Association and whether investors in the Whitewater land deal -- including Mr. Clinton and his wife -- benefited from questionable Madison transactions during the 1980s.

"It has been said that the best a man can give is his living spirit to a service that is not easy," Mr. Clinton wrote to Mr. Nussbaum. "And we have worked together in Washington at a time when serving is hard."

Mr. Clinton praised Mr. Nussbaum's significant role in the selection of Attorney General Janet Reno, FBI Director Louis Freeh and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "They are pioneers, and yours was the lamp that lit their way," the president wrote.

Mr. Nussbaum, 57, also had a role in several appointments that turned into fiascoes. They included Zoe Baird, the first choice for attorney general, and Lani Guinier for a top Justice Department post, a nomination that was emotionally rescinded by Mr. Clinton himself.

The reason Mr. Nussbaum was forced out, however, concerned his handling of one issue -- the investigation into Whitewater's land investments in the Ozarks.

The problems began on July 20, 1993, when Deputy White House Counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr., a former partner of Hillary Rodham Clinton's in Little Rock, was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound in a national park.

His death came hours after a federal magistrate issued a warrant authorizing a search of the office of David Hale, a former judge and Clinton friend who is on trial on charges of making illegal loans -- some of them to Whitewater.

Mr. Nussbaum didn't secure Mr. Foster's office, insisted on being present during law enforcement interviews, helped conceal for days a possible suicide note and then assisted in the secret removal of Whitewater files in Mr. Foster's possession.

Mr. Nussbaum whethered the controversy generated by those actions, but he was unable to with stand revelations unearthed last week that he participated in meetings between federal banking regulators and other White House officials over how to handle public relations issues raised by Whitewater.

Support for the defiant, gruff-talking Mr. Nussbaum evaporated instantly among the senior staff, the president was forced to issue written rules prohibiting such contacts, and on Friday night, Mr. Nussbaum and other top officials were hit with a subpoena by Mr. Fiske, the special counsel investigating Whitewater.

Even Mr. Nussbaum's longtime friend couldn't save him.

That friend was Mrs. Clinton, who once worked with Mr. Nussbaum. And the irony, at least to Mr. Nussbaum's critics, was that this previous government service should have sensitized him to the danger of appearing to engage in a cover-up.

Mr. Nussbaum, like the young Hillary Clinton, worked as a counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during its impeachment investigation of President Richard M. Nixon.

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