DOJ Lawyers Document White House Switch On Foster Office Search
Jul. 21, 1995
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Justice Department told the White House it was making a ``terrible mistake'' by refusing to let law enforcement officers see documents in Vincent Foster's office after his death, according to notes of participants in the negotiations.
The notes, likely to become a focal point in Senate Whitewater hearings, state that White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum initially agreed and then refused to let career Justice Department lawyers see Foster's papers. They included documents on President and Mrs. Clinton's Whitewater real estate venture.
The handwritten notes of then-Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann state that at a July 21, 1993, meeting, Nussbaum agreed that Justice Department attorneys David Margolis and Roger Adams would be permitted to look at the documents.
The purpose: Justice Department lawyers would check to see if the material was covered by executive privilege or attorney-client privilege. If it was _ and if it was deemed not to be relevant to the death investigation _ the material would be withheld from FBI agents and Park Police detectives sitting nearby.
Foster, who was deputy White House counsel, shot himself to death July 20, 1993.
Heymann's notes on the morning of July 22 quote Nussbaum as saying, ``Change in plan. You observe us as we do the search.''
Heymann then told Nussbaum he was making a ``terrible mistake'' and the deputy attorney general threatened to pull his Justice Department lawyers out of the White House unless Nussbaum let them see the material.
``I have to talk to some people about this,'' Nussbaum responded, according to Heymann's notes. The notes don't say who Nussbaum talked to, although another White House lawyer, Steve Neuwirth, was listed in Heymann's notes as opposing the agreement.
``The ... day was a disaster,'' Heymann assistant Cynthia Monaco stated in typed diary notes. ``Phil was on the phone with Bernie Nussbaum'' and Heymann ``said: `You are messing this up very badly.'''
For 2 1/2 hours, Nussbaum ``was considering whether to allow us to see the documents,'' Adams, the Justice Department lawyer, wrote in a two-page summary of events of that day.
In the afternoon, Nussbaum told Heymann that ``we'll do it my way,'' according to Heymann's notes.
Adams and the other investigators watched the search, in which Nussbaum and White House lawyers Steve Neuwirth and Cliff Sloan ``stayed behind Mr. Foster's desk and examined documents pulled from the desk, nearby credenzas, and a briefcase,'' Adams' typewritten notes say.
``At one point during the search, Mr. Sloan stated to an FBI agent who was standing: `You're not standing to get a look at the documents are you?' The agent indicated he was not, but sat down. In the particular setting, the remark was to put it charitably extremely offensive,'' Adams' notes state.
Recalling what she was told about the search, Monaco said White House lawyers Neuwirth and Sloan ``regularly whispered in Bernie's ear as to whether or not he should assert some privilege.''
Nussbaum directed that the Whitewater papers and 23 other files in Foster's office be sent to the Clintons' personal attorney. Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff, Margaret Williams, supervised their removal to a closet in the White House family residence. They were sent to the lawyer four days later. The White House says no one reviewed the material while it was in the family residence.
Nussbaum is expected to testify at the Senate Whitewater hearings. A secretary at his law office in New York said he was at a meeting and not available for comment.