TOP Treasury officials sat squirming on Capitol Hill for the second day in a row yesterday, vainly trying to convince disbelieving members of the Senate Banking Committee that they had not lied or been evasive in their accounts of dealings with the White House in the Whitewater affair.
Under relentless questioning from Democrats and Republicans alike, the Treasury Chief of Staff, Joshua Steiner, denied what is strongly implied in a private diary he had kept, that the Deputy Treasury Secretary, Roger Altman, deliberately deceived the committee when he testified on 24 February.
Appearing later in the afternoon, in this fifth round of congressional hearings on Whitewater, Mr Altman apologised if any of his statements had been misleading, but again denied he had done anything wrong. But if his evidence and that of Mr Steiner fail to sway the Senate, Mr Altman could be forced to resign.
At the heart of proceedings is the probe into the failed Madison Guaranty savings bank owned by James McDougal, President and Mrs Clintons' one-time partner in the Whitewater property venture. The investigation was conducted by the Resolution Trust Corporation, the federal agency headed until earlier this year by Mr Altman.
At issue is whether Mr Altman, a close friend of the Clintons, breached procedural rules and kept top aides of the presidential couple informed on the progress of the investigation. In February he told the Senate there had been only one such contact, three weeks earlier. In fact dozens took place. But, he said yesterday, 'no one at the Treasury or RTC improperly imparted information to the White House about the Madison investigation'.
Calm and composed during his inquisition yesterday, the 28-year- old Mr Steiner said Mr Altman had been 'truthful and forthright' in his February testimony. Alas, his diary, a particular embarrassment to the Treasury and White House in the affair, tells a slightly different story.
At one point it notes how Mr Altman had 'gracefully ducked' questions about contacts on Madison Guaranty. Another entry speaks of Hillary Clinton being 'paralysed' at the thought of a special Whitewater prosecutor probing '20 years of business dealings in Arkansas' - implying that the Clintons were keen to have friends like Mr Altman to keep them abreast of potentially dangerous developments. Indeed, the White House is known to have objected strenuously to Mr Altman's initial request to remove himself from the RTC post.
Yesterday, however, Mr Steiner claimed the diary was not intended to be a precise narrative, but rather 'a way to reflect on events'. But these linguistic contortions predictably cut little ice with his interrogators, Republican and Democrats alike, who for all their differences share a common dislike of being lied to.
Mr Altman has made it clear he intends to stay on. But such are the contradictions in the versions given by senior Treasury officials that someone's head will have to roll. Another candidate for the block is Jean Hanson, the Treasury's top lawyer, who was grilled for seven hours on Monday evening. She says she gave information to the White House about the RTC probe as long ago as last September, on Mr Altman's explicit orders. This is denied by Mr Altman. So blatant were the differences that even the relatively sympathetic Democratic Senator John Kerry told her that 'it's almost as if you're setting yourself up to take the fall for Mr Altman'.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies