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TREASURY OFFICIAL TRIES TO DOWNPLAY HIS DIARY ENTRIES

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Disowning his own diary entries, a top Treasury official sought Tuesday to convince skeptical senators that his written portrayal of the Clinton administration's handling of the Whitewater affair was in error.

"I wish that my diary was more accurate," Treasury Chief of Staff Joshua Steiner told the Senate Banking Committee.Steiner wrote that Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman was under intense pressure from the White House to continue overseeing the Resolution Trust Corp.'s investigation of the failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, owned by Clinton's former business partner in the Whitewater land venture.

But under questioning by Democrats and

Republicans on the committee, Steiner said, "It was not my impression at the time he was under pressure."

He also told the senators he didn't remember why he had written that Altman had "gracefully ducked" questions from senators during an RTC oversight hearing in February.

"You've got a convenient memory here today, but these diaries speak for themselves," Sen. Richard Shelby, D-Ala., told him.

The committee is investigating whether any improprieties occurred in the RTC's investigation of Madison. Investigators allege in criminal referrals that Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, may have benefited from improper activities at the S&L.

Steiner said Altman, then acting head of the RTC, was leaning toward stepping aside from the probe but decided to "sleep on it" after a White House meeting with presidential counsel Bernard Nussbaum on Feb. 2.

Altman returned from the meeting and described to him the arguments thatNussbaum had made, including Nussbaum's fear that the probe would be "carried out in a partisan fashion" if Altman stepped aside, Steiner testified.

He said that at times he wrote entries in his diary about meetings he did not attend and that he did not check their accuracy. "It was more than anything a way to reflect on events and draw lessons for my personal and professional experiences," he said.

White House officials already have testified that there was no pressure on Altman to recuse himself from the Madison investigation.

The committee chairman, Donald Riegle, D-Mich., was not convinced.

"It is very clear to me from reading your diary there was a problem here of Mr. Altman being under very significant pressure with respect to the decision," he told Steiner.

Steiner testified the "word `battle' is overly dramatic" in his diary entry that there had been battles within the RTC for weeks about how the investigation should be handled. Steiner said the issue was not the overall Madison investigation but whether Altman should recuse himself.

Dennis Foreman, the Treasury Department's chief ethics officer, told the committee there was no legal requirement that Altman recuse himself from the investigation.

In a separate development, a White House official said Tuesday that when Whitewater-related documents were removed from the office of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster's office immediately after his suicide last year, they were taken by Hillary Clinton's chief of staff to the first family's personal residence.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the documents were transferred to the Clintons' private lawyer five days later, after Foster's funeral. The official did not know why the papers didn't go immediately to the private attorney.

The Washington Post, which first reported the development, quoted the Clintons' lawyer, David Kendall, as saying neither the president nor Mrs. Clinton reviewed the documents.

The Treasury officials' appearance came after Democrats and Republicans on Monday grilled the department's top lawyer, Jean Hanson, about contradictions with other administration officials and her failure to correct Altman's earlier Senate testimony - even though she knew it was incomplete.

Hanson's answers were so damaging to herself that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said it's "almost as if you're setting yourself up to take the fall for Mr. Altman."

Contradicting her boss, Hanson testified she first revealed information about the Madison probe to presidential aides last September at Altman's explicit instructions.

Altman has said he does not recall giving Hanson, the general counsel, such an instruction and does not believe he did so.

Democrats and Republicans flashed anger at Hanson's failure to correct Altman's misleading testimony in a Feb. 24 Senate hearing.

At that time, Altman was asked whether he was aware of any discussions with administration officials about Whitewater. He mentioned only one contact, although it is now known there were at least 40. And he neglected to disclose that he considered disqualifying himself because of his friendship with the president.

Senators asked Hanson how she could sit behind Altman at the hearing and not correct him immediately or at least in the days afterward. She said she was waiting for a transcript to review.

"At some point you had some obligation to remind him that was left out," Riegle said. "You had some obligation to respond in real time."