Court to hear appeal of Foster's lawyer Client's right to privacy asserted amid Starr probe

March 31, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Giving the legally embattled Clintons some temporary relief, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to rule on a lawyer's claim that notes of a conversation relating to White House scandals should remain secret. The notes were made by a lawyer for Vincent W. Foster Jr., deputy White House counsel, shortly before Foster committed suicide in 1993.

That conversation, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr believes, may contain information about whether Hillary Rodham Clinton lied to investigators about the firing of White House travel office aides five years ago.

Foster's attorney, James Hamilton, has claimed that the notes are protected by attorney-client confidentiality. In agreeing to decide the case, the court rebuffed Starr's claims that its review of Hamilton's assertion would slow Starr's criminal inquiry. A ruling is unlikely until next year.

The case involves notes Hamilton took of a conversation with Foster in July 1993. Nine days later, Foster committed suicide.

Foster, according to Starr, would have been "an important witness" in his investigation of possible perjury and other crimes committed during official investigations of the Clintons. His death, Starr said, made it more important to find out what he may have said to Hamilton.

Early in the Clinton administration, aides in the travel office were fired amid unsubstantiated rumors of fraud and mismanagement by those aides. After Foster's death, investigators began to study whether the firings had any connection to his suicide.

Hillary Clinton told investigators that she had "no decision-making role" in the firings. But a White House memo turned up later, seeming to contradict her and indicating that Foster had carried out the staff dismissals on her orders. That led investigators to demand the notes of Foster's lawyer.

A lower federal court refused to protect the notes under the privilege of attorney-client secrecy. Because Foster is dead, a federal appeals court ruled in August, the need for attorney-client confidentiality is outweighed by the needs of Starr's criminal inquiry.

In other action yesterday, the court refused to allow a soldier from Texas, Michael New, to complain to civilian courts about being discharged for refusing to become a part of United Nations forces for a peacekeeping mission. New has been told by lower courts that he must first take up his grievance through the military court system.

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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