President defends wife against critics Hillary Rodham Clinton to answer questions, perhaps before Congress

January 12, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Defending his wife against an increasing torrent of attacks, President Clinton said yesterday that the first lady would do "whatever is necessary" to answer questions about her role in two White House controversies. He did not rule out her testifying before Congress.

"She has said that she will do whatever is necessary to answer all the appropriate questions, and I think that she should do that," Mr. Clinton said at a news conference. "We will determine in the days ahead together what is necessary."

In recent days, Hillary Rodham Clinton has become the focus of the Whitewater affair as well as "Travelgate," the controversy surrounding the firing in 1993 of White House travel office employees by top administration officials.

Independent investigations

Congressional investigators, as well as an independent counsel, are examining both episodes and have intensified their scrutiny of Mrs. Clinton in light of documents released last week that appear to be at odds with some of her previous statements.

Asked several questions about the dual controversies yesterday, Mr. Clinton defended his wife, describing her as "an enormous positive force in this country."

He said that she was being attacked "for many of the same reasons and from many of the same sources" as Eleanor Roosevelt, another high-profile, activist first lady.

Although a newly released memo -- suggesting that Mrs. Clinton played a key role in the travel office firings -- contradicts her earlier statements that she was not involved in the dismissals, Mr. Clinton said that "no discrepancies have been established."

In a TV interview with Barbara Walters to air tonight on ABC, Mrs. Clinton denies that she instigated the firings.

'I did not make the decisions'

"I think what is fair to say is that I did voice concern about the financial mismanagement [in the travel office] that was discovered when the president arrived here," she says. "But I did not make the decisions. I did not direct anyone to make the decisions."

At his news conference, Mr. Clinton also confirmed a report in Money magazine that he and Mrs. Clinton were facing mounting legal fees stemming from Whitewater as well as a sexual harassment case filed against him. The magazine said that the Clintons' net worth, which had approached $697,000 in July 1992, is now approaching zero.

It reported that the couple owed $1.6 million in unpaid legal bills by mid-1995, with a total legal bill of about $2.1 million.

A legal defense fund they set up has collected about $865,000.

"That's apparently part of the price" of the presidency, Mr. Clinton said, adding that he was confident that he would be able to meet his financial obligations.

Former associate

Also yesterday, a lawyer at Arkansas' Rose Law Firm told the Senate Whitewater Committee that he did not believe he was responsible for bringing an Arkansas thrift to the firm as a client, as Mrs. Clinton has said in sworn statements.

Richard Massey, then an associate and now a partner at the firm, supported the first lady's claim that he did the bulk of the work on two issues for the thrift, Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, in 1985. But when asked about Mrs. Clinton's account of how Madison came to hire the Rose firm, he said, "I don't believe it happened that way."

Although he said that he never knew Mrs. Clinton to do anything unethical in her work for Madison, Mr. Massey said that she had never disclosed to him that Madison's owner, James McDougal, was the Clintons' business partner in the Whitewater land deal.

He said that he was "disappointed" when he found out about it in news media accounts during the 1992 presidential campaign because of the possible conflict-of-interest cloud it cast on the firm.

Mr. Massey also disclosed that Vincent Foster, a Rose partner who became deputy White House counsel and committed suicide in July 1993, ordered him to turn over his Madison records during the 1992 presidential campaign.

Mr. Massey said that he was unaware that the files would go to the Clinton campaign and would not have given them up had he known.

Mostly, the committee was trying to determine from Mr. Massey whether Mrs. Clinton told the truth in placing responsibility on her former associate for bringing the Madison business to the Rose Law Firm.

In sworn statements to federal regulators, Mrs. Clinton had said that to the best of her recollection Mr. Massey approached her about representing Madison.

Mr. Massey told the panel: "It's possible that I had a casual conversation with her that I don't remember from 11 years ago, but I don't recall a conversation in which I went to her and asked her to help me bring in the client."

He conceded, however, that the hiring of Madison may have been a "team effort" since he had "pitched the business" to the president of the savings and loan, John Latham, over lunch.

Mr. Latham said that only Mr. McDougal had the authority to hire the firm, Mr. Massey said.

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