Golden boy may turn into fall-guy

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'RO-GER, RO-GER,' the President's aides chanted exactly a year ago on that heady night when Bill Clinton's deficit-cutting bill finally cleared Congress - largely thanks to the efforts of his old college pal Roger Altman, the Deputy Treasury Secretary, who headed the special White House 'war room' set up to help drive the economic package into law.

But that was then and this is now. Roger Altman, one-time administration wunderkind 24-carat FOB from their days at Georgetown University and virtual treasury secretary in waiting, is now teetering on the edge of disgrace stemming from the tangled saga of contacts between the Treasury and the White House in the Whitewater affair.

The charges against him are twofold: first, that as ex officio head of the Resolution Trust Corporation, the agency investigating the collapse of the Arkansas savings bank Madison Guaranty, with which the Clintons had links, he improperly gave his friend in the Oval Office inside information on the progress of the investigation.

Secondly - and more importantly - he is accused of misleading ('lying to' in common parlance) Congress, during testimony to the Banking Committee last February. On that occasion he maintained there had been only one such contact. The true figure, it emerges from a string of corrections issued by the administration, was closer to 40.

Thus far Mr Altman, 48, a high- flying Wall Street investment banker in those straightforward pre-Washington days, is defying calls for his resignation. 'I see no reason to step aside,' he has insisted time and again during a round of media interviews before being grilled by the committee yesterday. Three separate inquiries - by the White House, by the special prosecutor Robert Fiske and by the Treasury's independent ethics office - has found no evidence of wrongdoing. However, this is Washington, not Wall Street. Trivial as the scandal may be, Whitewater needs a fall-guy. Right now, Roger Altman is the obvious candidate.

(Photograph omitted)