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Altman Likely Republican Target : Whitewater: Deputy Treasury secretary is expected to be focus of hearings. GOP concerned with possible discrepancies in his statements.

July 24, 1994|MICHAEL ROSS and JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — As the Clinton Administration prepares for the Whitewater hearings in Congress this week, Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman is emerging as the prime target for Republicans who hope to show that the White House has been withholding key information about its handling of the affair.

"In their mind's eye, Republicans are painting a bull's-eye around Roger's head," says one source close to the House Banking Committee, where the long-anticipated Whitewater hearings will premiere Tuesday. The Senate Banking Committee will begin parallel hearings Friday.

Once considered an all but certain choice to be the next secretary of the Treasury, Altman has been swept into the center of the Whitewater controversy by potentially damaging discrepancies between his earlier testimony before Congress and sworn statements made last week to congressional investigators by one of his senior aides, Treasury counsel Jean Hanson.

When he appeared before the Senate Banking Committee last February, Altman said he knew of no secret efforts by the Treasury Department to inform White House officials about progress of the Whitewater investigation, with one exception--a brief meeting where Hanson gave them a "heads up" about inquiries into the failure of a Little Rock thrift owned by James B. McDougal, President Clinton's partner in the Whitewater Corp., an Arkansas land development venture.

Altman later said he did not learn until March that Hanson had given more extensive and multiple briefings about the status of the Whitewater investigation to then-White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum and other senior Administration officials the previous fall.

But in a deposition to committee investigators last week, Hanson said Altman ordered her in September to brief Nussbaum and the other White House officials about the investigation being conducted by the Resolution Trust Corp., of which Altman was also serving as acting chief at the time.

A memorandum that Hanson wrote to Altman on Sept. 30 of last year also indicates that on several occasions she briefed Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen on the RTC's efforts to establish a connection between Whitewater and the Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, the failed Little Rock thrift.

Other memoranda obtained by the committee further indicate that, in both their frequency and detail, the briefings went far beyond the initial "heads up" characterization that Altman gave to the Senate Banking Committee in his Feb. 24 testimony.

Whitewater special counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr., who took over the investigation in January at Clinton's request, has already examined the Treasury Department contacts and determined that, while they may have been ethically improper, they did not amount to a criminal attempt by anyone in the Administration to impede the RTC's probe.

Indeed, according to Rep. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who is serving as the Administration's point man on the House Banking Committee, the hearings will show that at "every point where a decision was made, it was made to go ahead with the investigation." There is no evidence, he added, that "anyone in the Administration tried to stop it."

But that may not be enough to let Altman off the hook if, as expected, the Republicans try to use the hearings to build a case that he lied to Congress.

Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, has indicated he will try to do just that and his counterpart on the House Banking Committee, Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, appeared to have Altman in mind when he said last week that the hearings would show how even some "good people stepped over the line" in their desire to protect Clinton from the Whitewater scandal.

Treasury Department sources said Altman will tell the committees when he testifies this week that his recollection of events simply differs from Hanson's.

But even Frank concedes that this explanation probably won't be enough. Altman "is going to have a tough time explaining things," said Frank. "I don't know at this point whether he lied or withheld, but he did not seem to give a complete accounting of his conversations" in his Senate testimony in February.

The Democratic lawmaker tempered his remarks by stressing that Altman "took no actions to impede the (Whitewater) investigation" either during or after his tenure at the RTC. But by publicly questioning the credibility of Altman's recollection of events, Frank's comments underscored an impression gaining ground in Congress that the Administration may be getting ready to sacrifice Altman to its Whitewater critics.

That impression has been reinforced by the fact that the Treasury Department seems to have been cut out of an effort to blunt the impact of the most embarrassing disclosures expected to emerge from the hearings, senior congressional and Administration sources say.

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