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Witness Says Aide Removed Foster Papers After Suicide : Whitewater: Senate testimony reportedly contradicts White House account. Hearings begin next week.

July 10, 1995|JOHN M. BRODER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — New inconsistencies have emerged in Clinton Administration accounts of the night of the suicide of Vincent W. Foster Jr., a top White House lawyer and close friend of President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

A Secret Service agent has told investigators for a special Senate committee conducting a Whitewater probe that he saw Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff, Margaret A. Williams, remove documents from Foster's office the night of his death, July 20, 1993, according to a source familiar with the inquiry.

The White House has consistently maintained that Williams and two other White House aides who entered Foster's office that night disturbed no potential evidence and removed no documents.

But the testimony of Secret Service officer Henry O'Neill contradicts the White House and is expected to be a prominent feature of the Senate committee hearings, which open July 18 under the supervision of Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, the combative Republican from New York.

"A uniformed Secret Service agent has testified that he believes he saw Maggie [Williams] carry a box of files from Foster's office," said a source familiar with the Senate panel's inquiry. "This is clearly an issue that will be raised."

Investigators have been trying to determine whether the files containing records of the Clintons' Whitewater land investment were removed from the office or tampered with. Among the central questions of the Whitewater affair is whether the Whitewater land development in Arkansas was used to launder political donations or was itself a vehicle for illegal gifts to Clinton, who was then governor of Arkansas.

A copy of what the White House says is the complete Whitewater file from Foster's office was reviewed by The Times on Sunday. It contains very incomplete records of the land deal but does not support speculation that the project was a fraud or that Foster was excessively concerned about the matter. Amid all the speculation over what prompted Foster's suicide--now widely attributed to depression--was the theory that he was disturbed by the land deal.

The White House is prepared to contest O'Neill's allegation with testimony from the two other staff members who entered Foster's office: then-White House counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum and White House aide Patsy Thomasson. Both say that neither they nor Williams took anything from Foster's office in the 59 minutes during which it was unsecured on July 20.

In addition, Williams requested a polygraph examination to support her version of events. Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr ordered the test in December and it indicated that Williams was telling the truth, according to a source close to the investigation.

The Senate committee is also expected to highlight inconsistencies among the accounts of Williams, Nussbaum and Thomasson about who entered Foster's office when and for what purpose. All contend they went to Foster's office about 11 p.m. on July 20 to look for a suicide note, but they differ on several relatively minor details.

Starr and his predecessor as independent counsel, Robert B. Fiske Jr., have spent more than a year investigating Foster's death and the response of White House officials to it.

Sources indicated that Starr completed his inquiry into the handling of documents in Foster's office without finding any criminal behavior and thus was willing to allow D'Amato to examine the subject in the Senate hearings.

A White House lawyer assigned to coordinate response to the Whitewater hearings and to deal with requests from the independent counsel said that while there are inconsistencies in the recollection of O'Neill and the three White House aides, they are not substantial and do not amount to an attempted cover-up.

He said Foster's death was a horrific shock to the Clintons and those who worked closely with the quiet Arkansan at the White House.

"It was a night of intense emotion, frenzied activity and enormous confusion at the White House and the Foster home in Georgetown," said Mark Fabiani, a senior lawyer in the White House counsel's office.

"It's not surprising that there are minor differences in the accounts of the events of that night, but the central allegation--that the Whitewater file was removed from Vincent Foster's office--is not true," Fabiani said.

Fabiani said that custody of the file, which contains sketchy records of the Clintons' investment in the failed Whitewater Development Corp., was unbroken from the night of Foster's death until it was delivered to the Clintons' personal attorney six days later.

The file was removed from Foster's office two days after the suicide and transferred to a locked closet in the Clintons' residence, where it remained over the weekend as Clinton and Mrs. Clinton traveled to Arkansas for Foster's funeral. It was transferred by messenger to the offices of the Clintons' lawyers, Williams & Connolly, the following Monday.

Differing accounts of the contents of the box will be presented to the Senate committee next week, sources said.

Fabiani insisted that no one tampered with the box's contents and that nothing supports speculation that Whitewater was a factor in Foster's death.

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