Slippery White House stokes up suspicion: Constant drip of less than shattering revelations keeps scandals alive

THE SUMS of money are piffling, no wrongdoing has been proved. The central events took place in a small, obscure Southern State, a decade ago or more. But Arkansas' then governor, Bill Clinton, is now President. And for a harassed White House, the tangle of his personal and financial dealings, collectively known as 'Whitewater', is the story that will not die.

Yesterday brought the latest instalment of torture by a thousand tiny cuts: allegations that the Rose law firm of Little Rock - where Hillary Clinton and Vince Foster, the senior White House counsel who died last July, were partners before they came to Washington - only last week had secretly shredded documents relating to Whitewater, the real estate venture the Clintons once jointly owned with the head of a savings bank called Madison Guaranty.

Admittedly, the report appeared in the Washington Times, a conservative paper ferociously critical of a Democratic President. Based on the claims of two unidentified Rose employees, it is hotly denied by the firm's managing partner. But the timing is unfortunate: just when Robert Fiske, the special counsel appointed by the government to uncover the truth about Whitewater, is about to start work in Little Rock.

The inquiry will examine not only possible financial and ethics misbehaviour by the Clintons, but that separate headache for the White House - the Foster affair. It is now admitted that Whitewater documents were removed from Foster's office shortly after he was found dead, before the police could inspect it. Now the White House must contend with speculation Foster did not commit suicide, as universally and logically assumed, but was murdered.

The rumours' only basis are assertions by a paramedic who first saw the body. His claims of 'circumstances inconsistent with suicide' have been rebutted by leading forensic experts. Nor has anyone suggested who might have killed Foster, or why. By far the most plausible explanation is that he was so depressed he took his life.

But it is by innuendo and partial revelation that Whitewater lives - prompted less by Republican mischief- making than White House slipperiness, that offers conspiracy theorists a field day. The removal of the files from Foster's office offered ammunition aplenty. If proof emerges that Rose did indeed turn to the paper shredder, there will be yet more.

Meanwhile, other shreds of the Whitewater fabric pop up almost daily. Last weekend came the first apparent proof that money from Madison, whose 1989 collapse cost taxpayers up to dollars 60m (pounds 41m), helped the Clintons meet their commitments to Whitewater, which they had jointly set up with Madison's owner Jim McDougal.

The funds in question, a puny dollars 7,300, date back to 1985. They are said to be an 'informal payment' assisting the Clintons at a moment when the Whitewater concern was experiencing difficulties. But Jim Leach, the Iowa congressman who is leading the Republican campaign, insists the discovery is 'clear evidence of a small amount of fire amid the smoke'. Another typical story contains the less than shattering revelation the Clintons might have underpaid their income taxes by dollars 11,000 between 1978 and 1980, by incorrectly reporting Whitewater transactions.

More gripping was a story in the New York Times that a report by the Park Police, who found Foster's body, 'strongly suggests' Bernard Nussbaum, White House counsel and Foster's immediate superior, deliberately impeded its investigations in the 48 hours following his death.

Now Mr Nussbaum says he did nothing wrong when he insisted that other staff be present when witnesses were interviewed by the police. But the Justice Department refuses to release either the report of the Park Police or the separate autopsy on Foster, on the grounds that to publish them could interfere with the work of the special counsel. And so curiosity grows. Will the White House never learn? Or maybe there really is something to hide.

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