Altman throws in the towel over Whitewater

ROGER ALTMAN, an old personal friend of President Bill Clinton, bowed to the inevitable and resigned as Deputy Treasury Secretary yesterday, overwhelmed by withering criticism of his congressional testimony in the Whitewater affair.

Accepting the resignation, President Clinton told Mr Altman in a letter: 'I believe you have taken the right step under the circumstances.'

Only the timing had been in question after senior Democrats on the Senate Banking Comittee told the White House last week they could no longer have any confidence in the 46-year-old former Wall Street investment banker, who was one of the administration's rising stars until the Whitewater affair led to his undoing.

That undoing stemmed from Mr Altman's appearance before the committee last February, when he indicated there had been only one 'substantive' meeting between the Treasury and the White House over the course of a federal investigation into a failed Arkansas savings bank, Madison Guaranty, owned by the Clintons' former partner in the Whitewater real estate affair.

It subsequently emerged, however, to the acute embarrassment of the White House, that there had been dozens of such contacts, several of them involving Mr Altman who was then in charge of the Resolution Trust Corporation, the agency set up to clear up the S & L collapse of the late 1980s.

Perhaps worse still, the recent Whitewater hearings produced flatly contradictory testimony from Mr Altman and Ms Jean Hanson, the Treasury's top lawyer, who testified under oath that she had been directly instructed by Mr Altman to keep the White House up to date on the Madison, which by late last year was under criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

Until last week, Mr Altman still hoped he could ride out the storm, with the apparent blessing of the White House. But when the Banking Committee chairman, Don Riegle of Michigan, told the administration that he had to go, that support evaporated.

Ms Hanson is also expected to step down soon as Treasury counsel. But the fate of Joshua Steiner, the 28-year-old Treasury Chief of Staff and hapless diary keeper, is uncertain.

However predicted the demise of Mr Altman has been, it only adds to the mid-summer miseries of a White House fearful of fresh personnel shake-ups, buffeted by Whitewater and exhausted by the battle to salvage the core of Mr Clinton's legislative programme on Capitol Hill.

On that last front, the omens are still mixed. The prospects for passage of a revamped crime bill by the weekend have improved, after Mr Clinton promised concessions to senior Republicans on Tuesday evening, and two members of the House black caucus who opposed the measure in last Thursday's crushing procedural defeat announced they were changing their minds.

But the prospects for the health care bill - the subject of tortuous negotiations on Capitol Hill - are muddier than ever. A bad-tempered Senate has started to vote on amendments, but with no guarantee any measure will pass soon.

The House meanwhile is not expected to take up its version of the bill until September. A new ABC TV poll meanwhile shows Mr Clinton's approval rating slumping further, to barely 40 per cent.

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