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Nussbaum Defends Restriction of Access to Foster Files : Whitewater: Ex-White House counsel says he acted to protect former aide's privacy and that of the Clintons. He denies any wrongdoing.

August 10, 1995|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Denying any wrongdoing, former White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum said Wednesday that he was right to block investigators' access to the files of the late Vincent Foster after his suicide, saying that it was his legal duty to protect the privacy of his former deputy as well as that of the President and First Lady.

In long-awaited testimony before the Senate Whitewater committee, an indignant Nussbaum said that he acted not to conceal potentially embarrassing information after Foster's suicide but because "I was acting as a lawyer must act."

"Nothing was destroyed. Everything was preserved," he said. Ultimately, Nussbaum noted, "everything that law enforcement officials asked for was turned over to them."

During a full day's testimony sprinkled with sharp clashes with Republican senators on the panel, Nussbaum also contradicted the testimony of many earlier witnesses on conversations that occurred in the hours and days after Foster's 1993 suicide.

Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), the committee chairman, found the contradictions so "troubling" that he vowed to subpoena the telephone records of Susan P. Thomases, a confidante of the Clintons; of the Little Rock, Ark., residence of the First Lady's mother, and of the Washington home of Margaret Williams, Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff.

For example, Thomases testified Tuesday that during a phone conversation with Nussbaum two days after the suicide, it was Nussbaum who initiated a discussion about granting access to the files. But Nussbaum said Wednesday that he could not recall doing so.

Nussbaum denied talking to the President or First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton about access to Foster's files, saying he assumed that they would want him to protect privileged information. Other witnesses have said they had the impression that Nussbaum may have been acting at the behest of Mrs. Clinton.

On the witness stand, Nussbaum more than lived up to his reputation as a highly successful but confrontational New York litigator. He was unyielding, haughty, condescending, combative and, finally, rueful over the death of a respected colleague whom he came to treasure.

Unlike most people who speak deferentially before a Senate committee, Nussbaum was not reluctant to engage--repeatedly--in finger-wagging, voice-raising exchanges with senators and the panel's GOP attorney.

During a 50-minute opening statement, Nussbaum stated: "I did not, nor to my knowledge, did anyone else in the White House, destroy, mishandle or misappropriate any document in Vincent Foster's office."

He denied that his handling of documents in Foster's office--whether blocking full access or sending to the White House residence the personal papers of the President and First Lady--was motivated by "some deep concern with the Whitewater matter."

Referring to the controversial real estate development venture in Arkansas, in which the Clintons invested, Nussbaum added: "Whitewater had absolutely nothing to do with how documents were handled."

Rather, he stated, he initially blocked full access to the documents because of privacy concerns.

He said that Foster's office contained "numerous confidential and privileged files [and] . . . extremely sensitive documents, such as briefing books on Supreme Court nominees and background reports on other high Administration officials. I believed there also might be national security information in the office."

Because of such concerns, Nussbaum decided to accompany investigators from the Justice Department and the U.S. Park Police during a search of Foster's office two nights after Foster was found dead in a suburban Virginia park overlooking the Potomac River.

The investigators were there, he said, to search "for a suicide note, an extortion note, or some similar document which reflected depression or acute mental anguish."

Rather than denying them across-the-board access to the documents, as recommended by some top White House aides, Nussbaum allowed the investigators to watch as he reviewed Foster's files, giving them a verbal description of the documents as he did so. "The agents were with me at all times," he recalled. "I was bending over backwards throughout this process."

But that did not satisfy Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who accused Nussbaum of having a "selective memory" and called that session "a sham search."

"You did it your way and the American people will never know what was in there," Shelby said.

Bristling, Nussbaum reiterated his statement that every document ever sought by investigators was turned over.

At another point, Nussbaum clashed with GOP counsel Michael Chertoff over the latter's recounting of a portion of statements made by Nussbaum during a recent deposition.

"You should be complete. You should be fair," Nussbaum lectured Chertoff, demanding a fuller recounting of his earlier testimony.

When sympathetic Democratic senators posed benign questions, Nussbaum often complimented them for asking "a good question."

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