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Mystery Woman of Whitewater : Politics: Laura Jean Lewis may very well be the star witness in this summer's congressional hearings. So who is she?

June 21, 1994|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Somewhere safe, Laura Jean Lewis keeps her most valuable, and perhaps most volatile, possession. It is an audio cassette tape, a recording so important, so politically charged, that she is known to have played it for only one person.

Lewis, a lowly federal bureaucrat who has stumbled into the Whitewater scandal, guards the tape so fiercely because she believes it is her best defense against the mounting attacks on her reputation from Washington.

But the tape, which sources say is a recording of a private conversation between Lewis and April Breslaw, a senior government attorney who denies the conversation ever took place, is like everything else about Jean Lewis and her critical role in the Whitewater scandal: It remains shrouded in intrigue.

With congressional hearings into Whitewater looming as Washington's summertime spectacle, L. Jean Lewis is emerging, for better or for worse, as Whitewater's mystery woman. But when the hearings open on Capitol Hill, perhaps as early as next month, Lewis will tell her story--a story that will include allegations of check kiting and other questionable dealings between Bill and Hillary Clinton and their Arkansas business partner, and, even more troubling, explosive allegations of a possible cover-up within the Clinton Administration. All that figures to make her the star witness in what still seems likely to become the biggest Washington scandal since Iran-Contra

"I think Jean Lewis could prove to be more troublesome for Bill Clinton than Paula Jones," argues Rep. Jim Leach, (R-Iowa), the Republican Party's point man on Whitewater, and Lewis' main protector in Congress.

Today, Jean Lewis is struggling to cope with her new-found status as presidential whistle-blower, but clearly life at Whitewater's vortex isn't easy.

"I'm just trying to maintain . . . some days are better than others," says Lewis, in a soft Texas drawl. "I find myself in a very difficult situation. I don't want any publicity out of this, I really don't. Any quotes you may have seen from me in the press have all been surprise interviews, where reporters got me outside my house. I hope there comes a time where I can talk more freely, but right now. . . ."

At first blush, Lewis seems an unlikely choice for such a controversial, high-profile role. A 40-year-old Houston native and the daughter of a retired U.S. Army major general, Lewis is a bureaucrat in the field office of an obscure federal regulatory agency here and has never met President Clinton or his wife, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. She's not a cop, not an FBI agent--she's not even a lawyer. She would never make it in Bill Clinton's network of Ivy League friends and associates--she's a political science graduate of a state college in rural Texas, Sam Houston State. Her $54,000-a-year job at the Resolution Trust Corp., the federal government's S&L-cleanup agency, is unglamorous and filled with tedium.

What she does for a living is comb through the mountains of paperwork and documents and the eye-glazing computer files left behind by failed savings and loans after they are seized by federal regulators. As a senior criminal investigator at the RTC regional office here, her job is to search through the documents of dissolved thrifts to reconstruct questionable transactions and look for signs of criminal wrongdoing by S&L executives and their friends and business partners. If she finds something suspicious, she is supposed to send a recommendation for criminal action to the Justice Department.

It is the regulatory equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystack.

Yet her seemingly mundane job put Lewis in just the right position to play a critical role in Whitewater, a scandal marked by arcane financial deals at a failed S&L.

"Jean loves digging out facts and details," observes Van Glover, a former S&L executive who worked with Lewis at a Dallas thrift before she joined the RTC. Lewis' job at that ailing S&L was to act as liaison with the FBI and regulatory agency officials in their criminal investigation of the thrift's management, and she handled most of the document searches for the investigators. "She was great at the nitty gritty detail work. Investigating makes some people very nervous, especially where you are investigating powerful people. But it never made Jean nervous. She loved it."

Lewis joined the RTC in 1991 after a government investigator she had worked with at the Dallas S&L recommended her for an opening in the Tulsa, Okla., office. It was a good time for the move; childless, Lewis was going through a divorce in Dallas from her first husband (she has since remarried).

Soon, she was assigned to investigate the wreckage of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, a Little Rock S&L owned by James McDougal--the Clintons' partner in Whitewater, a failed land development project in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas.

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