GOP links first lady to hampered search Senate Whitewater panel cites series of phone calls

November 03, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans asserted yesterday that a series of phone calls made after the 1993 death of White House deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. reveal that Hillary Rodham Clinton was "deeply involved" in controlling a search of Mr. Foster's office.

New York Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, Republican chairman of the Senate Whitewater committee, said the phone calls -- among Mrs. Clinton, her chief aide and a close friend -- "suggest a clear route of influence" between the first lady and Bernard W. Nussbaum, the White House counsel who kept Justice Department officials and police from reviewing files in Mr. Foster's office.

The committee has sought to determine whether the White House tried to protect the Clintons by obstructing an examination of Mr. Foster's office. At issue is whether officials were trying use his office to hide files related to the Whitewater land deal.

Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff, Margaret Williams, and a confidante, Susan Thomases, testified before the committee for the second time yesterday, this time responding to questions sparked by the newly obtained phone records.

The phone logs show that early on July 22, 1993, two days after Mr. Foster's death, Ms. Williams called Mrs. Clinton in Little Rock, Ark. Six minutes after the call ended, Mrs. Clinton called Ms. Thomases in Washington, and they spoke for three minutes. A minute later, Ms. Thomases phoned Mr. Nussbaum's pager, a call he returned.

Later that morning, Mr. Nussbaum told Justice Department officials that they could not review documents in Mr. Foster's office. Those officials testified last summer that, the day before, Mr. Nussbaum had agreed to conduct a search of the office with them.

"These phone calls were the precise reason Bernie Nussbaum changed his mind," Mr. D'Amato said yesterday.

Both Ms. Thomases and Ms. Williams insisted, as they did when they testified in August, that they did not discuss the search of Mr. Foster's office, or any documents, with Mrs. Clinton.

Ms. Thomases, a New York lawyer, said there was no connection between the early-morning phone conversation with the first lady -- in which she said she talked about the funeral plans -- and her call to Mr. Nussbaum a minute later. She said she tried to reach Mr. Nussbaum because she had not talked to him since Mr. Foster's death.

But Republicans argued that the timing of the calls bolstered testimony by associate White House counsel Stephen Neuwirth. told the panel in August that he was under the impression Mr. Nussbaum thought Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Thomases feared that people might have "unfettered access" to Mr. Foster's office.

"What I see is a day that began and ended with Maggie Williams, Susan Thomases and Hillary Clinton conversing," said Republican Sen. Connie Mack of Florida. "Ms. Williams started the day at 6:44 a.m. Arkansas time with discussions that something needed to be done to keep law enforcement out of Foster's office. She ended the day with a conversation with Ms. Thomases and a conversation with Hillary Clinton to let them know, 'mission accomplished.' "

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the committee, said that while some of his colleagues were bent on seeing conspiracy, "it's also a reasonable hypothesis that these were two totally independent calls."

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