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First Lady's Associates Clash With Senators : Congress: GOP members of Whitewater panel question women's vague recollections of phone calls made following death of Vincent Foster.

November 03, 1995|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Two close associates of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton clashed with Republican senators repeatedly Thursday as they claimed only vague recollections of phone conversations in the hours after the death of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster.

Senate Whitewater Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and his GOP colleagues declared that, in spite of previous denials, a cluster of 17 phone calls suggests that the First Lady personally gave orders to remove financial documents from Foster's office after his apparent suicide in July, 1993.

Margaret Williams, Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, and Susan Thomases, a longtime confidante of the First Lady, both denied discussing the files with the First Lady or with each other. They said they could not remember the substance of their conversations, even after being shown their phone logs for July 21 and 22--the two days after Foster's death.

D'Amato called their reactions "disturbing," adding that "it simply fuels our suspicions" about a possible cover-up of Hillary Clinton's role in limiting the search of Foster's office.

The panel is trying to determine who set in motion the removal of files on the Clintons' Whitewater land deal shortly before law enforcement officials arrived to investigate Foster's death.

Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) said that the panel "should invite the First Lady to come down and clear this thing up" and should subpoena her if she refuses to appear voluntarily. D'Amato said that he was reluctant to subpoena the First Lady.

Democrats charged that GOP panel members were trying to inject politics into hearings supposedly aimed at gathering facts about the Clintons' investment in Whitewater, an Arkansas land deal that dates to 1978. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) said D'Amato seemed intent on staging a "political circus" based on "conspiratorial theories."

Foster's body was found in a Virginia park not far from Washington with a .38-caliber pistol in his hand and a single bullet wound in his head. Bernard Nussbaum, then White House counsel and Foster's boss, initially agreed to give law enforcement officials free access to Foster's office to look for clues but then changed his mind.

Williams and Thomases had told the committee last summer that they played no role in Nussbaum's actions--statements that Nussbaum supported. But the panel called the two women to testify again after obtaining more complete phone records showing a flurry of calls after Foster's death.

Williams, often interrupting her interrogators, repeatedly said: "Do I remember every single call? No, I do not" and "The calls I remember I already told you about."

*

The new records show that Thomases, a New York lawyer and frequent White House visitor, phoned Nussbaum at 8 a.m. on July 22 just one minute after a long-distance conversation with Hillary Clinton, who was in Arkansas.

"I never spoke with anyone about the contents of Mr. Foster's office," Thomases testified. "Whitewater was not on my mind at that time."

She told the committee that her calls to the First Lady, and to Williams and others at the White House, were to express sympathy for the loss of a mutual friend and to offer support. She said she could not remember exactly with whom she had spoken.

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