Cover-Ups Are Never Graceful

August 03, 1994

Before the main event -- Roger Altman vs. Al D'Amato -- started yesterday in the Senate's Whitewater hearings, there was a revealing exchange between Sen. Paul Sarbanes and Josh Steiner, the bright young chief of staff for Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen.

Some of Mr. Steiner's diary entries strongly suggest Mr. Altman, when he was acting director of the Resolution Trust Corporation -- the agency that oversaw failed savings and loans -- was less than honest in his committee testimony about the Whitewater affair back in February. Mr. Steiner wrote that Mr. Altman had been good at "gracefully ducking" senators' questions.

Yesterday, Mr. Steiner tried to give a new interpretation. But as Senator Sarbanes interrogated him, he began to do some not-so-graceful ducking. He resorted to a series of such phrases as "I cannot recall" and "I have no recollection." When Mr. Steiner did answer, the senator charged he was trying to lead the committee to believe something that was not the whole truth. Other Democratic senators had similar problems with Mr. Steiner.

The day before, the senators had a problem believing Jean Hanson, the Treasury's general counsel. Her account of her role as the White House, the Treasury and the RTC juggled the Whitewater hot potato seemed to be designed to cover her own mis-steps. Pointedly she made no such defense of Mr. Altman's testimony. The senators -- including most of the Democrats -- were ready to accept that interpretation. They clearly believe that he misled them and that some sort of cover-up was involved.

The Senate hearings are a fine counterpoint to the hearings on Whitewater held by the House Banking Committee (except for the tasteless display put on by some Republican senators in the Vincent Foster suicide phase of the hearings). The House committee's hearings often seemed to be part of an administration cover-up, with Chairman Henry Gonzalez following a White House script.

Why are Senate Democrats less partisan? Because senators don't like being lied to, and they think they were. Institutional loyalty is greater than party loyalty.

The reason this potato is hot is that there is a strong suspicion of a cover-up. The RTC field office had recommended the Justice Department investigate the collapse of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan for possible criminal prosecution. President and Mrs. Clinton were mentioned in the recommendation. They were informed of this, which is unusual to say the least. Furthermore, Mr. Altman appears to have been pressured, successfully for a time, to keep an eye, if not a rein, on investigators.

This is no Watergate by any means. It is no third-rate affair, either. But the senators have a duty to find out exactly what happened, determine the veracity of administration officials and report to the public.

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