Whitewater hearing explores change in White House search procedure

July 20, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell finished a second day of questioning yesterday about the actions of bereaved and shaken White House officials in the hours and days following the death of deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr.

In Day 2 of the Senate's Whitewater hearings, lawmakers questioned Hubbell about the actions of Bernard Nussbaum, the former White House counsel who resigned last year after coming under fire for his handling of Whitewater matters.

Republicans suggested that Mr. Nussbaum, who will testify before the committee, impeded a police search of Mr. Foster's office after his July 1993 suicide with the intent of hiding something.

Democrats, and Hubbell, countered that Mr. Nussbaum was merely wearing his "New York litigator hat," acting in his typically aggressive, take-charge manner, but without sinister motives.

In coordinating the search of Mr. Foster's office after his suicide two years ago, Mr. Nussbaum kept the U.S. Park Police at a distance while he examined some of Mr. Foster's files. Among his files was one on the Whitewater real estate investment of President Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Although an examination of the land deal is not a part of this round of hearings, senators are trying to find out if the White House engaged in a cover-up by keeping Mr. Foster's file on Whitewater from the police.

Hubbell testified that he was told by former Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann that the White House and Department of Justice had worked out an agreement regarding the search of Mr. Foster's office and then "the understanding had changed" when Mr. Nussbaum took control of the search.

"Why would anyone put up barriers unless he had something to hide?" Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama asked Hubbell, a longtime Foster friend who pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud and tax evasion brought by Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Hubbell begins a 21-month prison sentence next month.

Hubbell said that Mr. Nussbaum's actions were likely a reflection of his hard-hitting personality. "I think Bernie himself will say that he's not the best PR [public relations] for himself. He's a protecting lawyer, as he has been trained to do for many years."

Republicans also said they were troubled by the fact that Mr. Nussbaum and two White House aides -- Margaret Williams, chief of staff to Mrs. Clinton, and presidential assistant Patsy Thomasson -- were in Mr. Foster's office on the night of his death.

In Mr. Nussbaum's deposition, read yesterday by Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah, the former White House counsel describes going into Mr. Foster's office to find Ms. Williams sitting on a sofa crying and Ms. Thomasson sitting behind Mr. Foster's desk, saying that she was looking for a suicide note. Mr. Nussbaum said that he helped with thesearch, but no note was found and they left together.

"Who is Patsy Thomasson?" Mr. Bennett exclaimed. "Why would her presence be accepted by the White House counsel as a normal matter of course . . .?"

Hubbell said he did not find it strange that some of Mr. Foster's colleagues would flock to his office in search of some clue to his suicide. "We all were in such shock that Vince would kill himself that we were saying, 'Why? Why in the world? What was so bad?' "

Hubbell said he and others knew Mr. Foster had been severely depressed in his final days, but that Mr. Foster seemed obsessed with criticism over the controversial firing of White House travel office employees, not the Whitewater affair.

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