WASHINGTON — White House aide Patsy Thomasson acknowledged publicly for the first time Tuesday that she had spent 10 minutes searching the office of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster for a suicide note on the night his body was found in a suburban Virginia park.
At the same time, Thomasson, a longtime friend of the President from his home state of Arkansas, denied GOP allegations that she had interfered with a law enforcement investigation or that she was part of an effort by Clinton loyalists to cover up the causes of Foster's suicide.
Under questioning by members of the Senate Whitewater investigating committee, Thomasson admitted that she did not have standard White House security clearance at the time she entered Foster's office on the night of July 20, 1993. But she insisted that her perfunctory search of the desktop and drawers did not put her in any danger of encountering confidential documents.
"I didn't go through every individual file in his desk or anything like that," Thomasson said. "I just looked in the top of the drawers and the top of the desk to see if there was something there that would be a suicide note."
Under standard White House security procedures, she noted, the President's aides are required to lock all top secret documents away in their safes when they leave their offices at night. Therefore, she reasoned, there would be no confidential documents on Foster's desk.
Republicans were nevertheless outraged by Thomasson's confession.
Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) questioned why Thomasson, whose security clearance was not approved until the following March, was permitted by her White House superiors to "rifle through" Foster's documents, while law enforcement officials investigating the case were denied access to the papers found in the office of the victim.
"If this isn't a total contradiction," Faircloth said, "I've never seen one."
The committee is investigating allegations that the White House tried to obstruct a Justice Department investigation of Foster's death. Although the panel has accepted the findings of law enforcement officials that it was a suicide, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said Tuesday that he still wonders whether Foster might have been the victim of foul play.
"I just don't accept it," Gingrich told reporters, referring to the suicide verdict. "I believe there are plausible grounds to wonder what happened and very real grounds to wonder why it was investigated so badly."
Thomasson's recollections of the night in question conflict in a number of ways with testimony that the committee will hear later from former White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum and Margaret Williams, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff.
As she recalled events, Thomasson was leaving a Washington restaurant about 10:30 p.m. when she received a telephone pager message from her boss, David Watkins, then assistant to the President for White House administration. When she contacted Watkins, who was calling from Foster's house, he asked her to go to the White House to look for a suicide note.
Thomasson said she arrived at the White House 15 minutes later, went to Foster's office along with Nussbaum, sat in Foster's chair and searched for a note, finding nothing. Williams came in while Thomasson was there, she said, and the two of them cried together.
After 10 minutes inside the office, she said, Nussbaum, who had left the office briefly, returned to say: "We probably don't need to be here any more; let's leave." All three of them walked out "empty-handed," she said.
According to committee sources, Nussbaum will testify that he did not enter the office with Thomasson, but came in just before advising the two women that they should leave. Williams, meanwhile, is expected to testify that she arrived at Foster's office about the same time as Thomasson--not afterward.
Faircloth and other Republicans suggested that Thomasson, who joined the White House staff in March, 1993, had not been granted a security clearance by July, 1993, because she had previously been employed by Dan Lassiter, a former Clinton supporter in Little Rock, Ark., who was convicted of drug possession.
But she said she had simply been slow in doing the necessary paperwork.
Watkins, who now lives in Carlsbad, Calif., testified that he instructed Thomasson to go to the White House and look for a suicide note because Foster's wife and friends, who were gathered at the dead man's home, were unable to figure out why he had killed himself. He also denied GOP allegations that he wanted her to destroy any embarrassing evidence.
Meanwhile, in other testimony, Sylvia M. Mathews, now a Treasury Department official and then an assistant to the President's domestic policy adviser, described how she had inventoried Foster's trash that night--also looking, in vain, for some clue to why he killed himself.
Both Mathews and committee investigators strongly denied published reports that she had ordered confidential documents from Foster's so-called "burn bag" destroyed.
And Mark D. Gearan, assistant to the President for communications, acknowledged under questioning that Deputy Atty. Gen. Philip B. Heymann had complained to him nine days after Foster's death that the White House had exercised too much control over the Justice Department investigation of the case.
Gearan's notes from that conversation indicate that Heymann told him Atty. Gen. Janet Reno was upset because it took the White House four days to find a suicide note in Foster's briefcase.
Faircloth suggested at the outset of Tuesday's hearing that the panel should call Hillary Clinton to be questioned about whether she played any role in trying to limit the investigation, as one witness may suggest. Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) denied the request, saying that there was not enough evidence of involvement by the First Lady.