Clinton aide contradicts her bosses

August 02, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Treasury Department's top lawyer, Jean Hanson, contradicted statements by her bosses yesterday, telling a Senate committee that she briefed the White House about the Whitewater affair last fall at the instruction of Deputy Secretary Roger C. Altman.

Mr. Altman has said he did not learn about Ms. Hanson's September contact with the White House until March, and he has denied telling her to brief the White House.

And Treasury Secretary Lloyd M. Bentsen has disputed Ms. Hanson's assertion that she briefed him about a government investigation into the Whitewater matter before he learned about it in the press.

Ms. Hanson, who portrayed herself yesterday to the Senate banking committee as a political novice and a "Beltway outsider," said Mr. Altman instructed her in September to advise Bernard W. Nussbaum, then White House counsel, about a government investigation into the failure of Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan that mentioned the Clintons as possible witnesses.

"I spoke with Mr. Altman," she said. "I recall being given the responsibility of telling Mr. Nussbaum this information was going to leak to the press."

Yesterday, as the Senate resumed its hearings into the propriety of Whitewater-related meetings between White House and Treasury officials, Ms. Hanson acknowledged the disagreement with Mr. Altman but tried to deflect the finger-pointing that has created turmoil at the top of the Treasury Department.

She said any differences between their stories were irrelevant, because the meetings were "entirely appropriate and necessary" and were not attempts to interfere with the investigations.

"In my view, the difference between Mr. Altman's and my recollections on this point is not significant," said Ms. Hanson, a Minnesota native who came to the Treasury Department from a New York law firm.

"If I had thought it was inappropriate to brief Mr. Nussbaum, I would not have done it. I take full responsibility for the decision to do so. What I think is significant is that Mr. Altman and I agree that it was entirely appropriate to brief Mr. Nussbaum about the expected leaks."

The deputy secretary, who will get his turn before the committee today, has been the target of intense criticism because of his perceived readiness to disclose sensitive Whitewater-related information to the White House. Several Republicans have called on him to resign.

Ms. Hanson also testified that she prepared a memo to Mr. Altman in late September that confirms her conversation with Mr. Nussbaum and reports that she had briefed Mr. Bentsen about the expected press leaks of the Whitewater matter.

Mr. Bentsen has denied being told about the case by Ms. Hanson before reports surfaced in late October.

Grilled for hours by the committee members, Ms. Hanson said all of the contacts she and other Treasury officials had with White House officials were proper.

"No one to my knowledge intended to do, or did, anything wrong or unethical," she said.

Another contradiction

In testimony at odds with that of a career regulatory official who preceded her yesterday, she said she didn't recall being told that the information about the investigation should go no farther than Mr. Altman.

Until last spring, Mr. Altman was the acting head of the Resolution Trust Corp., an independent agency under the purview of the Treasury Department, which was investigating the failed Arkansas savings and loan that ended up costing taxpayers about $60 million. The career regulator, William Roelle, former senior vice president with the RTC, said he told Ms. Hanson in September that the agency was about to send to the Justice Department a recommendation for a criminal investigation into Madison -- which included a mention of the Clintons -- but that it was confidential.

Only for Altman

"I said I did not think it should be discussed," Mr. Roelle said. "It should be kept quiet. It was only for Mr. Altman and only as an advisory for Mr. Altman."

John E. Ryan, the RTC's current chief, agreed that such information "was supposed to be confidential, and the RTC has a responsibility to keep that information confidential. The RTC breached that responsibility."

Bush inquiries

Mr. Roelle also disclosed yesterday that the Bush administration had sought information about the RTC probe into Madison -- whose owner, James McDougal, was the Clintons' business partner in the Whitewater land deal -- six weeks before the 1992 election.

Mr. Roelle said he told the Bush-appointed RTC chief that "it would be inappropriate" to discuss the case with the White House counsel at the time, C. Boyden Gray, who had been asking about it.

(Mr. Gray told the Associated Press that he didn't recall asking about Whitewater.)

Ms. Hanson was subjected to tough treatment yesterday, even from some Democrats who scolded her for failing to correct what they perceived as incomplete and misleading testimony given by Mr. Altman at a hearing in February.

With Ms. Hanson seated behind him at that hearing in February, Mr. Altman vastly understated the number and substance of discussions between White House and Treasury officials when asked about them. He later disclosed that there were more contacts in letters to the committee.

Ms. Hanson said yesterday that she was surprised that Mr. Altman omitted important elements in his testimony.

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