Roger Altman -- and Kenneth Starr

August 23, 1994

Roger Altman's resignation as deputy secretary of the Treasury and Jean Hanson's as Treasury general counsel were no surprises. The Whitewater casualty list is getting long enough to be a political liability for President Clinton.

Mr. Altman and Ms. Hanson still deny they did anything improper in briefing the White House counsel, Bernard Nussbaum, about a Resolution Trust Corp. criminal investigation into Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, an institution linked to President and Mrs. Clinton and the Whitewater Development Co. Mr. Altman and Ms. Hanson also minimize misleading Congress about the briefings.

Executive branch officials cannot do their jobs if they aren't trusted by Congress. Caught dissembling, resignation is the right decision. As for the briefings, Mr. Altman, who was then also acting director of the independent RTC, had no business advising subjects of its investigations about what was going on. It was a mistake to have a presidential cabinet appointee acting as RTC chief -- especially a "friend of Bill's." Trouble was guaranteed.

The Whitewater affair had already claimed Mr. Nussbaum, who was forced to resign last winter for those RTC-White House meetings, and Deputy Attorney General Webster Hubbell, who resigned because of Whitewater-related activities while practicing law in Arkansas before he came to Washington. Some critics still claim the suicide of Vincent Foster, the deputy White House counsel, was related to Whitewater. There is no evidence of that, Independent Counsel Robert Fiske said.

Mr. Fiske is, of course, now the ex-independent counsel. Kenneth Starr was named to replace him by a panel of judges. They did so because they thought there might be a "perception" that Mr. Fiske was not independent enough, having been chosen by Attorney General Janet Reno. This newspaper criticized the appointment of Mr. Starr at the time. We said he had been too active a Republican partisan to be perceived as neutral.

That was before we learned David Sentelle, the judge in charge of the panel that dismissed Mr. Fiske and picked Mr. Starr, had previously lunched with Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth, leader of the Fiske ouster effort, and chatted by phone with columnist William Safire, who also had been calling for Mr. Fiske to be booted. We now believe Mr. Starr has no option but to resign. If he didn't have a perception problem of his own, he has one now, thanks to Judge Sentelle -- who should not be involved in selecting Mr. Starr's replacement.

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