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Little Rock Law : The Rose Firm Proudly Sent Four Partners To The Clinton Administration-- And It's Faced Disaster Ever Since

April 03, 1994|John M. Broder and James Risen | John M. Broder is a White House correspondent in The Times' Washington Bureau. James Risen is Times national correspondent based in Washington

A shift in fortune was signaled, as it so often is, by the most prosaic of events. The phone rang.

Phillip Carroll, at 68 one of the grand patriarchs of Little Rock's legal community, was at home on a midsummer night in the affluent Heights neighborhood. He was the first to receive the news that would rock the rich, sheltered way of life enjoyed by partners at the Rose Law Firm.

Shortly after 10 p.m., an old friend with close ties to the Clinton White House, federal appellate Judge Richard Arnold, called to impart the incomprehensible. Vince was dead. A suicide. His body had been found in a park in Virginia. Carroll could barely breathe. Vince Foster. Carroll had been his mentor and confessor, godfather to his eldest son. Dead by his own hand.

Minutes later, Rose partner George E. Campbell's phone rang. It was Ann Pincus, a Little Rock native, wife of a Washington Post reporter and lifelong friend of Campbell's wife, Joan. Pincus had attended a Washington dinner party for David Gergen during which the presidential counselor received an urgent call from the White House with the awful news.

It was July 20, 1993, and deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr., 48, once the soul and spine of the Rose Law Firm, boyhood friend of the President and close confidant of former Rose partner Hillary Rodham Clinton, had apparently committed suicide with an antique .38 Colt revolver in an isolated park overlooking the Potomac River.

Suddenly, the Washington-Little Rock nexus of lawyers and politicians went into action. The news spread across the network like a cascading wave.

William H. Kennedy III, now White House associate counsel and former chief operating officer at Rose, quickly called several of his former colleagues at the firm. Trying to learn more about Foster's death, Carroll sought the Washington home number of Webster L. Hubbell, also a former senior partner at Rose and then the No. 3 official at the Justice Department, who was in a key position to monitor the Foster investigation.

Back in Washington, Foster's boss, White House counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum, was searching Foster's modest office in the West Wing, looking for a suicide note or a blackmail demand.

"Did he say anything?" a bewildered Nussbaum kept asking himself as he riffled through papers on Foster's desk. Nussbaum, the New Yorker who had made a fortune on Wall Street in the 1980s putting together corporate mergers, was out of his element when confronted with violent death, and his amateurish handling of Foster's suicide deepened suspicions that the White House was trying to conceal some hidden scandal involving the First Family.

Not until six days later did a White House lawyer find a torn-up suicide note in the bottom of Foster's briefcase. It hinted at dark conspiracies by the FBI, the media and Republicans to destroy the Clintons and everything they were trying to accomplish. Foster, in a restrained but anguished cry, wrote that he "was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here, ruining people is considered sport."

It was the most traumatic, unfathomable and searing event of the Clinton presidency. Why was Foster--whom the President described as the "Rock of Gibraltar," the man once anointed to guide the Rose Law Firm into the next century, the man people in trouble turned to for help--dead at the pinnacle of his career?

That question remains unanswered. But what is clear is that in the wake of Foster's death, the prosperous and peaceful life of Little Rock's Rose Law Firm has been shattered. Foster's death has immersed the firm in the rapidly unraveling Whitewater scandal, a tale of Arkansas banking and real estate deals gone bad and the White House's clumsy efforts to contain the continuing damage. It set in motion a series of events that subjected Rose's 59 lawyers to unaccustomed stress. That pressure now appears to threaten an implosion of the oldest law firm west of the Mississippi.

Already, the firm's response to the harsh glare of national scrutiny has turned into an ugly internal blood bath. On March 14, Hubbell resigned from his job at the Justice Department amid charges that he improperly billed as much as $100,000 in personal expenses to the firm while he was a partner. The Rose investigation of Hubbell was only tangential to the Whitewater probe, but "It's Whitewater that created the climate, that gave the dissidents in the firm the opportunity to go after Hubbell," observes one source close to Hubbell.

There is bitter talk, especially among the younger generation of Rose attorneys now taking control, of the tarnished legacy bequeathed them, and they are trying to distance themselves from Hillary Clinton and her departed cronies. In mid-March, Rose partners voted to file charges against Hubbell with the Arkansas Supreme Court ethics division.

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