Senators claim Whitewater cover-up

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SENATE Republicans yesterday launched their Whitewater offensive with new charges that White House and Treasury officials were engaged in a cover-up to shield the Clintons, and a fresh review of the shooting death of deputy presidential counsel Vincent Foster just over a year ago.

Opening the attack at yesterday's Senate Banking Committee hearing, Senators Alphonse D'Amato of New York and Phil Gramm of Texas took special aim at the Deputy Treasury Secretary, Robert Altman, close friend of Mr Clinton, who headed the regulatory agency probing the failed Madison Guaranty savings bank and the web of Arkansas financial dealings involving Mr Clinton.

Mr Amato accused Mr Altman of helping the White House 'conceal, disguise and distort the truth', to help the 'self-preservation of the President'. Mr Gramm, an active if still undeclared Republican Presidential candidate for 1996, accused Mr Altman of lying to Congress last February.

There is little likelihood the Senate's hearings will be any more enlightening than those in the House. But the looser rules of the Senate, the smaller size of the Committee and its stronger Republican representation will allow more thorough questioning.

Thus far, proceedings have gone relatively well for the Clintons. The first witness, Lloyd Cutler, a White House counsel, was smooth, authoritative and impregnable. On Thursday, questioning elicited no damaging admissions from 11 past and present senior aides.

Like the House, the Senate is largely hamstrung by an undertaking not to interfere with the continuing investigations of the special prosecutor, Robert Fiske. Although - unlike the House - it agreed to go over the Foster case, the medical and police witnesses yesterday were the very people who worked under Mr Fiske and found, unequivocally, that his death was a suicide.

Charles Hirsch, the chief medical examiner of New York City, was asked whether he was sure Foster had killed himself. 'Yes, absolutely,' he replied, adding his three associates were equally certain. An FBI special agent, Lawrence Monroe, insisted that the bureau's investigations had unearthed not a shred of physical evidence that Foster's death was linked to Whitewater.

As for theories that Foster might have been murdered or that his body was moved to the northern Virginia park where it was found, Mr Monroe declared that these had 'no credibility'.

Indeed, there were signs yesterday the Republicans were fearful that too zealous a pursuit of the Foster case might backfire by reinforcing Democrat charges that the party was crying scandal where none existed.

The heat will intensify next week, when the Senate hears the Treasury Counsel, Jean Hanson, Mr Altman, and the Treasury Secretary, Lloyd Bentsen. Their accounts of their contacts with White House staff over the Madison probe contradict one another; relations between them are reportedly very strained. Mr Bentsen is said to have privately asked Mr Clinton to sack Mr Altman as soon as these hearings are over.