Legal net closes on First Lady

Whitewater scandal: Senate report says Hillary Clinton was behind cover-up into aide's suicide

A fraught Whitewater season for the Clintons opened yesterday with a Senate report charging that the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, was behind a concerted attempt to curb the investigation into the suicide of Vince Foster, her friend and deputy White House counsel, in July 1993.

According to the findings prepared by the Republican majority on the Senate Whitewater Committee and leaked to the Washington Post and New York Times, Mrs Clinton immediately "dispatched her trusted lieutenants to contain any potential embarrassment or political damage" that could arise from Mr Foster's papers. These dealt, inter alia, with the now notorious Whitewater real- estate venture.

The Whitewater special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, will now be asked to investigate whether three of those trusted lieutenants - Mrs Clinton's chief of staff, Maggie Williams, her close friend, Susan Thomases, and the former White House counsel, Bernard Nussbaum - committed perjury in their evidence to the committee during its 13 months of hearings or otherwise obstructed justice.

Ms Williams, according to sworn testimony from a Secret Service agent, removed documents from Mr Foster's office on the night of his death, while law enforcement officials have accused Mr Nussbaum of systematically limiting their access to the office until his own secret search was complete, on the instructions of Mrs Clinton.

Thereafter, the report continues, the White House continued to make life as difficult as possible for investigators, obfuscating and prevaricating at every turn. "Crucial files and documents `disappeared' or were withheld from scrutiny whenever questions were raised," it says.

Capitol Hill, however, is only one of the places which will be making Whitewater headlines in the coming days and weeks. Today a second Whitewater- related trial starts in Little Rock, while the Senate criticism of Mrs Clinton can only embolden Mr Starr in his investigations, which some observers believe could yet lead to her indictment for either perjury or obstruction of justice. Although she never testified to the committee, Mrs Clinton has already suffered the indignity - unprecedented for a sitting First Lady - of being summoned before a federal grand jury.

Lurking in the background, meanwhile, is a forthcoming Supreme Court ruling on the sexual harassment suit brought against the President by the former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones. If the court refuses to hear an appeal by Mr Clinton, intensely embarrassing pre-trial proceedings could start this autumn, just weeks before the election.

Publicly, the Clinton camp is sneering at the Senate report, deriding it as "a taxpayer-subsidised press release for the Republican Presidential campaign", while the separate verdict to be delivered by the Democratic minority on the committee will undoubtedly clear the White House of all wrongdoing.

But the renewed Whitewater controversy, coupled with the rumpus over alleged White House misuse of confidential FBI files in 1993, may be starting to have an impact on public opinion. Recently as high as 25 per cent, Mr Clinton's lead in the polls over his Republican challenger Bob Dole is narrowing - to as little as 6 per cent in a Time/CNN survey published yesterday.

Nor will the trial of two Arkansas small-town bankers which starts today advance Mr Clinton's cause. As in the trial which ended last month with the conviction on fraud charges of his former Whitewater partners, James and Susan McDougal and Jim Guy Tucker, his successor as Arkansas Governor, the President will give videotaped testimony for the defence, probably on 7 July.

Herby Branscum Jr and Robert Hill are accused of illegally channelling $13,000 (pounds 8,500) into Mr Clinton's 1990 gubernatorial re-election campaign. Though the sum involved is derisory, the case could implicate Bruce Lindsey, the Clinton campaign treasurer of six years ago who remains one of the President's closest White House advisers. If so, the discomfort for Mr Clinton would be acute.

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