Battered by Whitewater, Altman refuses to resign

August 04, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun Contributing writer Nelson Schwartz provided information for this article.

WASHINGTON -- After two days of excoriating questioning by congressional committees investigating the Whitewater matter, including calls for his resignation, Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman vowed yesterday to cling to his job.

Weary and battered from his 10 hours of testimony before the Senate banking panel on Tuesday, Mr. Altman, the No. 2 official at Treasury, was grilled for more than five hours yesterday by House Banking Committee members, many of whom said they doubted his truthfulness.

"The best course would be for you to resign," said Minnesota Republican Rod Grams.

"I don't intend to do that," said a defiant Mr. Altman, who had taped a photo of his three children to the witness table.

But the calls for him to resign mounted on Capitol Hill yesterday, with Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas saying Mr. Altman had "lost the confidence of Congress" and Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama becoming the first Democrat to demand the Treasury official's resignation.

President Clinton, at his news conference last night, expressed confidence in Mr. Altman, saying, "He has now answered all the questions that the Senate could possibly have about an incident that involved no violation of the law and no violation of ethics."

But, taking some of the luster off his endorsement, he said, "I do not countenance anybody being less than forthright with the Congress" and suggested management decisions at Treasury would be left to Secretary Lloyd M. Bentsen.

Mr. Altman was joined by a parade of high-ranking administration officials, including Mr. Bentsen, who marched through Capitol Hill yesterday as Whitewater hearings continued in both the House and Senate banking committees.

The committees are examining the propriety of contacts that took place last fall and winter between Treasury and White House officials regarding a federal investigation of a failed Arkansas savings and loan with ties to the Clintons. The Resolution Trust Corp., an independent agency that Treasury oversees, was conducting the federal investigation, and until March was headed by Mr. Altman.

In the Senate, Mr. Bentsen, a former Senate committee chairman, testified for more than three hours before lawmakers who, for the most part, treated him with the kind of respect accorded one of their own -- in stark contrast to the hostile interrogation his top deputy received.

When asked if he thought anyone should lose his or her job because of the meetings, he responded indirectly, with what appeared to be only mild support for his aide. "Whatever happened here was not with the intent to harm," Mr. Bentsen said. "It was an error in judgment. I haven't found anybody who calls them right all the time."

House members continued to chip away at Mr. Altman's credibility in highly partisan proceedings.

Rep. Toby Roth, a Republican from Wisconsin, said Mr. Altman's testimony "is becoming less and less believable" and "strains credulity."

But several House Democrats came to Mr. Altman's defense. "You're being held out as the fall guy," said Massachusetts Rep. Joseph Kennedy.

The Senate appeared preoccupied with Mr. Altman, who admitted this week that his testimony before the committee last February was perhaps less than complete and forthright. Senators also continued to disparage Treasury chief of staff Joshua Steiner, who tried to distance himself from his own diary entries when appearing before the committee on Tuesday.

In one of the few rebukes of Mr. Bentsen, he was advised by committee Chairman Donald W. Riegle Jr., a Michigan Democrat, that such oblique responses by his aides would not be tolerated.

"That's a problem we can't have again with anybody from the Treasury," Mr. Riegle said, asking for an assurance from Mr. Bentsen that when Treasury officials are asked questions they'll give "full, complete answers right there on the spot."

Mr. Bentsen replied, "That certainly is my intention and direction to anyone."

Mr. Bentsen distanced himself from the controversial contacts between White House and Treasury officials, saying he did not learn of the fall and winter meetings until March.

"I have turned the Treasury Department upside down," he said. "I've turned my memory inside out. We went through thousands and thousands of documents, and I can't find one written briefing to me on these White House meetings."

His testimony contradicts that of Treasury general counsel Jean Hanson, who says she briefed Mr. Bentsen about the Whitewater-Madison issue, including her contacts with the White House, last September.

Asked if Ms. Hanson was in error, he said, "I certainly think she was."

No senator challenged Mr. Bentsen's account.

The only sharp remarks came from Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York, who scolded the Mr. Bentsen for failing to advise Mr. Altman to recuse himself from the RTC's Madison probe because of his personal friendship with Mr. Clinton. The Clintons were named as possible witnesses in the case.

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