First lady testifies to Whitewater grand jury

January 27, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon and Lyle Denniston | Carl M. Cannon and Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Hillary Rodham Clinton testified for 3 1/2 hours before a Whitewater grand jury yesterday, emerging after dark on a cold night with a wave for her fans, a smile for the cameras and a display of self-assurance to a curious nation.

"It's been a long day," the first lady said. "I looked forward to being able to tell the grand jury what I know, to be able to answer their questions.

"I tried to be as helpful as I could in their investigation efforts, but now I am going home, and I hope all of you will as well."

With that Mrs. Clinton, the only first lady ever summoned to testify before a grand jury, climbed into a limousine and headed up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

There, she was met and hugged by President Clinton and the couple's daughter, Chelsea.

Mrs. Clinton's testimony -- and that of five other White House aides or Clinton attorneys -- was demanded by the Whitewater special prosecutor, Kenneth W. Starr, after the sudden discovery inside the White House of copies of long-sought billing records.

The records involved Mrs. Clinton's legal work for a Whitewater-associated savings and loan.

The first lady said she told the grand jury the same thing she has said publicly since the records surfaced two weeks ago -- that she has no idea how the records mysteriously reappeared in a room on the third floor of the White House residence after having been missing for two years.

"I was glad to have the opportunity to tell the grand jury what I have been telling you," she said.

"I do not know how the billing records came to be found where they were found, but I am pleased that they were found because they confirm what I have been saying."

Back at the White House, a cheer went up in the West Wing of the White House where nervous aides had been watching on television.

At the federal courthouse a dozen blocks away, the sentiment among those gathered outside was mixed.

Placards proclaiming "Hillary, we love you!" or "Hillary our Hero" dueled with signs reading, "Come Clean" or "Liar, Liar Pants on Fire."

4 Inside the courthouse, the atmosphere was muted.

In a windowless room on an otherwise abandoned third floor, Mrs. Clinton testified alone before the 23 members of the grand jury.

Three times before, the first lady and the president have given sworn testimony to Mr. Starr.

But those depositions were taken inside the White House, with their attorneys present.

Yesterday morning Mrs. Clinton took a solitary walk on the running track behind the White House, presumably steeling herself for her encounter.

As she arrived at the courthouse, Mrs. Clinton looked upbeat, telling reporters, "I just want to say before I go in that I am happy to answer the grand jury's questions and look forward to telling them everything I know."

Afterward, Mrs. Clinton said that although the billing records were the primary focus of the questioning, she was asked about "other matters."

She did not elaborate.

"There were no surprises," according to Mark Fabiani, associate White House counsel. "She answered every question, did not take the Fifth Amendment and did not decline to answer any questions."

Mr. Starr has told Mrs. Clinton that she is not a "target" of his investigation -- that is, he has no plans to pursue criminal charges against her.

The fact that she was called before the grand jury does not change that status.

It was not known last night whether she will be called back for further questioning; Mr. Fabiani said she was not told either way.

How investigation widened

Yesterday's grand jury hearing was the latest, and probably the most dramatic, phase of Mr. Starr's 17-month investigation.

The original issue in the investigation was whether any crimes were committed in a series of land and financial deals in Arkansas when Mr. Clinton was governor and Mrs. Clinton was a partner in the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock.

Mr. Starr has gone well beyond that, and a major focus now is on how the Clintons and their aides have reacted to inquiries since the Clinton presidency began.

To help shed light on what happened in Arkansas, investigators have been seeking billing records pertaining to legal work Mrs. Clinton did for Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan.

The records had been lost until August, when Carolyn Huber, now a White House staff aide and formerly an office manager in the Rose Law Firm, found them in the White House family quarters in a place where only the president, Mrs. Clinton, their personal guests and White House servants have access.

Ms. Huber has said she did not initially recognize the records as the files being sought by prosecutors. She found them again in a box early this month, and her discovery was relayed to Mr. Starr and other investigators.

The special prosecutor, a former federal judge, is known for a courteous demeanor, but others who have been investigated during his pursuit of the Whitewater affair have found him tenacious and at times aggressive.

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