Citing incomplete and contradictory Whitewater testimony, a Senate committee chairman Wednesday admonished Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen to instruct his top aides to be more forthcoming to Congress.
"I think that's a problem we can't have again," Senate Banking Committee Chairman Donald Riegle, D-Mich., sternly told Bentsen, a senator for 22 years before joining the Clinton administration.Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, one of witnesses challenged by skeptical senators on Tuesday, gave essentially the same testimony Wednesday to the House Banking Committee, which resumed its Whitewater hearings.
"If we had to do this all over again, we would have done it better," said Altman, obviously weary from his 10-hour Senate grilling, which began late Tuesday afternoon and concluded early Wednesday morning.
In the Senate, Riegle told Bentsen that Altman had "acknowledged answers not as complete as they could have been."
Riegle also questioned the statements of Joshua Steiner, Bentsen's chief of staff, who disavowed his frank, and potentially damaging, diary entries about White House interest in the investigation of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan.
Steiner's answer to one question on Tuesday was "oblique and less
than candid" and only under continued probing did the committee get to the truth, Riegle said. "The answer turned in effect from a yes to a no."
Riegle asked for Bentsen's assurance that he would direct his staff to give the committee "direct, full, complete answers."
"That certainly is my intention and my direction to anybody representing Treasury," a subdued Bentsen replied.
The Arkansas thrift was owned by Clinton's business partner in the Whitewater land venture, and criminal referrals said the president and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, may have benefited from improper actions at the S&L.
Before the hearing started, Bentsen socialized with his former colleagues. But the jovial atmosphere quickly turned tense as Riegle lectured Bentsen.
Bentsen told the Senate panel that it wasn't until March 3 that he discovered Altman, then acting head of the RTC, had met with White House staffers about the Madison investigation.
"I have turned the Treasury Department upside down, I have turned my memory inside out, we went through thousands and thousands of documents and can't find one written briefing to me on these White House meetings," he said.
He took responsibility for his department's actions, but noted that Altman had since recused himself from the Madison investigation.
"What you have here is a unique confluence of circumstances that, when you strip away all the rhetoric, resulted in actions that broke no criminal law, did not violate the ethics rules and did not in any way effect the Madison case," Bentsen said.
Altman contended Tuesday he did not intentionally mislead the Senate when he gave incomplete testimony Feb. 24 on contacts with the White House about White-water. He conceded he should have disqualified himself earlier from overseeing an investigation involving his old friend, Clinton.
Altman came in for a political thrashing from Republicans. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said the past Senate testimony bordered on lying.
Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., said: "You have repeatedly given non-responsive answers, which you justify with semantic gymnastics. I can't help but conclude your every statement to this committee is to evade, not to inform."
Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, released documents Wednesday indicating that RTC lawyers in Washington delayed for two weeks the criminal referrals to the U.S. attorney in Little Rock. During that time, White House and Treasury officials had a flurry of conversations about them.
"It may be true that criminal referrals were not blocked, but it is not true that an effort to do so was not made," he said.