Mrs. Clinton faces press on finances

April 23, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- After months of fierce resistance to inquiries about Whitewater and her lucrative commodities investments, Hillary Rodham Clinton did a sudden about-face yesterday, holding a lengthy news conference to answer lingering questions about her financial dealings.

Appearing poised and confident, Mrs. Clinton admitted she and administration officials have mishandled the controversies over the Clintons' finances, calling their missteps "a result of our inexperience in Washington."

It was her first formal news conference, and though reporters were given more than an hour to ask questions, the event produced no major revelations.

Instead, Mrs. Clinton's seamless performance -- carried live by the major TV networks -- may have helped her blunt criticism that she has been evasive and unwilling to confront questions about her work as a lawyer in Arkansas and her role in the family's investments.

Only once, when she referred to the death of her father last year, did Mrs. Clinton momentarily lose her composure. Her eyes filled with tears as she offered sympathy to the daughters of ailing former President Richard M. Nixon. Mr. Nixon died late last night in a New York hospital.

Sitting in a formal chair on a raised platform in the State Dining Room of the White House, Mrs. Clinton said her failure to respond sooner to the persistent questions -- most of which have resulted from the White House's contradictory and vague explanations of the Whitewater and commodities controversies -- probably one of the things I regret most."

The first lady said she had "no reason to believe" she received special treatment when she turned a $1,000 investment into $100,000 in the late 1970s.

And she said she had "absolutely" no knowledge that any money from a failed Arkansas savings and loan had been diverted to the Whitewater land deal she and her husband invested in, or to Mr. Clinton's 1984 gubernatorial campaign.

Mrs. Clinton, whose advisers and friends have been pressing her lately to be more forthcoming with the news media, said she felt like "a fairly private person leading a public life. I've always believed in a zone of privacy. . . . I feel after resisting for a long time I've been rezoned."

Insisting that there was nothing improper about her extraordinary earnings in commodities trading, she said she entered the market on the advice of James Blair, a longtime family friend, who told her there would be "a great opportunity to make money" in cattle futures.

"Jim would call me on a regular basis and I would make a decision whether I would or would not trade, and then the trade would be placed," she said. "Often he placed it for me."

Commodities brokers have described her huge earnings as highly unusual. And Mrs. Clinton acknowledged yesterday that her brokerage firm had been sued and penalized for improper trading practices. But she said that there was no evidence of impropriety with her account and that she had merely been lucky.

In one of several questions she could not answer, she said she could not explain how her first trade apparently netted a far greater profit than should have been possible given the relatively small investment.

And though President Clinton said recently that his wife was asked to pony up more money at times to cover margin calls in her commodities account, she said, "Nobody ever called and asked me for anything."

Asked if her venture into the world of high finance didn't conflict with the couple's condemnation of those who sought to enrich them selves in the get-rich 1980s, Mrs. Clinton said her investment grew out of the desire to "create some financial security" for her family. "I was raised to believe that every person had an obligation to take care of themselves and their family," she said. "And that meant earning an income and saving and investing."

New York Republican Sen. Alphonse M. D'Amato said Mrs. Clinton's appearance "raised even more questions" than they answered. "She may have handled this in a very calm and cool and collected way. But I think there is still a question of fact as opposed to fantasy," he said.

Mrs. Clinton could not explain why, if the Clintons were 50/50 partners with James and Susan McDougal in Whitewater, the Clintons lost far less money than the McDougals.

"We gave whatever money we were requested to give by Jim McDougal," she said. "We did whatever he asked us. We saw no records. We saw no documents."

And she differed with Mr. McDougal, the president of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, in her account of the $2,000-a-month retainer that Madison paid Mrs. Clinton's Little Rock law firm. Mr. McDougal has said he threw the business to the Rose Law Firm after Mr. Clinton told him the couple needed money.

But Mrs. Clinton said yesterday that she approached Mr. McDougal and arranged for the retainer as an advance against future billing of Madison for work by Rose.

Asked several questions about the death last summer of White House aide Vincent W. Foster Jr., who had been a close friend and former law partner, Mrs. Clinton said she had no clue or insights into the suicide.

She said she hadn't known that Mr. Foster had Whitewater-related documents in his White House office, but surmised they were there because he was coordinating work on the Clintons' blind trust.

Mrs. Clinton said she made the decision to hold the news conference yesterday morning after recently learning that first lady Eleanor Roosevelt held 340 news conferences -- for female reporters only -- during her husband's administrations.

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