During an eight-month period when former top Justice Department official Webster Hubbell had promised to cooperate with the Whitewater independent counsel's investigation of President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Clintons' closest confidant and lawyer on the White House staff was in repeated contact with Hubbell, according to people familiar with the conversations.
The previously unspecified contacts between Hubbell and Deputy White House Counsel Bruce Lindsey occurred between Hubbell's guilty plea to charges of bilking clients and partners of his former law firm and the beginning of his 16-month prison term.
The new information about Hubbell's contacts with Lindsey is certain to raise new questions regarding whether the White House was trying to encourage Hubbell, who had been a law partner of Hillary Clinton in Arkansas, to remain silent about the Clintons' role in the Whitewater controversy.
Lindsey has not responded to interview requests during the last several months. A White House spokesman acknowledged this weekend that Lindsey spoke repeatedly with Hubbell during the eight-month period.
"He [Lindsey] can't quantify the number [of contacts]," said the spokesman. "But there were a number of times they spoke between the plea and the incarceration."
Several senior advisors to the president have told The Times they were unaware that Lindsey, who himself has figured in some aspects of the Whitewater controversy, maintained contact with Hubbell when Hubbell was ostensibly cooperating with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's probe.
"That would have been a great surprise to people," said one advisor familiar with the White House's handling of Whitewater during the last three years.
Had they been acknowledged, the contacts between Lindsey and Hubbell would have raised an appearance of impropriety, the advisor said.
"It would be nuts to be in any contact with a witness during the period in which he has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the prosecution," said the advisor. "Just from the standpoint of appearances alone, it's just something that should have been avoided. . . . Bruce was a [Whitewater] witness. You're basically talking about one witness talking to another."
The White House spokesman who answered questions over the weekend regarding Lindsey's contacts with Hubbell said the conversations "were personal in nature, out of concern for the plight of an old friend."
Those contacts are in addition to the occasion, on Thanksgiving 1995, when Lindsey spoke with Hubbell by phone from the Washington home of another White House aide, Marsha Scott. In that instance, reported last week by The Times, Hubbell phoned Scott's house from prison and spoke with Lindsey and others, according to Lanny J. Davis, a special White House counsel.
Within the period between his guilty plea on Dec. 6, 1994, and his imprisonment on Aug. 7, 1995, Hubbell faced tremendous pressures. The extent of his pledged cooperation with the Whitewater investigation could have provided him an opportunity to win a lighter sentence for himself.
Prosecutors were eager to mine Hubbell's recollections regarding a number of matters, including legal services performed for Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, a failed thrift at the heart of the Whitewater affair. Both Hubbell and Hillary Clinton, who had been partners at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Ark., had dealings with Madison Guaranty.
Hubbell's cooperation fell short of satisfying the Whitewater independent counsel, who recommended that he receive a maximum prison term. Upon completing his sentence in February 1996, Hubbell announced that he would no longer cooperate.
It has already been disclosed that Hubbell earned a considerable amount of money from consulting jobs--several instigated by top Clinton administration officials--between the time he resigned from the Justice Department and went to jail.
Partly as a result of those efforts, Hubbell won more than a dozen temporary job stints from which he earned hundreds of thousands of dollars after he resigned. Backers of Clinton also contributed to trust funds established for Hubbell's family and to a legal defense fund.
Among those who have testified recently to a grand jury in Little Rock regarding their help for Hubbell are White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and presidential counselor Thomas "Mack" McLarty, who was chief of staff in the spring of 1994 when he encouraged people to hire Hubbell.
Clinton has described the efforts as "human compassion." The president has said that until the guilty plea, he had no reason to believe that Hubbell, whom he had appointed to the No. 3 post at the Justice Department, had done anything wrong.
When McLarty and Bowles sought to help Hubbell, Clinton said on April 3, "no one had any idea about what the nature of the allegations were against Mr. Hubbell or whether they were true. Everybody thought there was some sort of billing dispute with his law firm, and that's all anybody knew about it, so . . . I do not think they did anything improper."
That explanation, however, would not apply to Lindsey's contacts with Hubbell following the guilty plea.
Hubbell's status as a Whitewater witness was a matter of keen interest to the White House in 1994 and 1995. In a memo dated Dec. 13, 1994, just days after Hubbell's guilty plea, White House lawyer Jane C. Sherburne listed monitoring Hubbell's "cooperation" as one of her tasks.
Sherburne and others were assigned at the time to prepare the White House's response to questions raised by the investigations of Whitewater by Starr, congressional committees and the news media. Lindsey himself had helped shape the administration's handling of Whitewater.
Prosecutors named Lindsey as an unindicted co-conspirator during the Whitewater-related trial last summer of two men who owned a bank in Arkansas and who had contributed to Clinton's 1990 campaign for governor. Prosecutors alleged that Lindsey had directed the bankers to conceal withdrawals of cash from the Perry County Bank and that the bankers had conspired with Clinton's campaign to make improper payments in the weeks before the election.
A jury acquitted the two bankers of the charges involving Lindsey.
Lindsey has acknowledged that he knew, as of 1994, that an affiliate of the Lippo Group, the conglomerate owned by the Riady family of Indonesia, had retained Hubbell after he resigned from the Justice Department.
Hubbell declined under oath last year to tell a Senate committee how much he was paid or what services, if any, he provided. Sources familiar with the matter say that Hubbell was paid $100,000 by the Lippo affiliate in June 1994. The Lippo companies and executives figure prominently in various congressional investigations of questionable donations made to the Democratic Party during the 1996 presidential campaign cycle.