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First Lady’s Role in Foster Inquest Probed : Whitewater: Senate panel questions three aides on whether she may have influenced decision to keep certain papers from police after aide’s death.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton may have weighed in on a White House decision to prevent law enforcement officials from reviewing documents in the office of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster after his suicide in 1993, key witnesses have told the Senate Whitewater investigating committee in private interviews.

According to sources familiar with these interviews, three Clinton advisers--former White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum; his deputy, Steven Neuwirth, and New York lawyer Susan Thomases--all left open the possibility that Mrs. Clinton may have expressed her views on how the White House could handle the sensitive suicide investigation.

Yet while they did not rule out the possibility that Mrs. Clinton was involved, sources said, none of these witnesses offered any firsthand recollection of what the First Lady might have said at the time to influence the White House decision-making.

Their testimony could imply disagreement with repeated White House denials that Mrs. Clinton played any role in limiting the investigation conducted by Justice Department officials and other law enforcement authorities. White House officials have portrayed Mrs. Clinton as too overcome by grief at the time to get involved in these matters.

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Even though the testimony could undermine the impression that the White House has created of Mrs. Clinton’s role, it by no means substantiates Republicans’ allegations that there was a White House cover-up designed to prevent police from seeing documents in Foster’s office that related to the First Family’s investment in the Whitewater land development in the Ozarks.

As hearings on the investigation of Foster’s suicide entered their third week Tuesday, there was evidence presented suggesting that White House officials may have tried to downplay the extent of Foster’s depression before his suicide as well as the First Lady’s interest in later events. A U.S. Park Police memo made public Tuesday indicates that Nussbaum failed to tell police that Mrs. Clinton had been shown Foster’s so-called suicide note before it was handed over to police on July 27, 1993--seven days after the body was found.

When police asked Nussbaum who had seen the note, which was found in the bottom of Foster’s briefcase on July 26, 1993, the then-White House counsel replied by naming five people: Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty, Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Burton, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, Deputy Atty. Gen. Philip B. Heymann and Foster’s wife, Lisa. Nussbaum also said that the President had been advised of it, the memo said.

But police said Nussbaum did not mention that he had summoned Mrs. Clinton, Foster’s close friend and former law partner, into the dead man’s office shortly after the note was found and showed it to her. As he later recalled the encounter, according to White House officials, Mrs. Clinton was overcome by emotion when she saw the note.

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According to sources, Neuwirth, a lawyer who worked for Nussbaum, has offered the committee the strongest testimony it has received regarding Mrs. Clinton’s possible involvement in the decision to keep law enforcement officials from looking at documents in Foster’s office. Nevertheless, his account is not based on firsthand knowledge.

In Tuesday’s testimony, U.S. Park Police Sgt. Peter Markland, who investigated the Foster death, flatly accused Nussbaum of lying to him about the suicide note, which White House lawyers claim to have discovered at the bottom of Foster’s briefcase six days after his suicide on July 20, 1993.

Markland said that he witnessed Nussbaum inspecting the briefcase on July 22 and recalled that the White House lawyer had said at that time the briefcase was empty. He suggested that Nussbaum either intentionally overlooked the note then or that it was subsequently placed in the briefcase.


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