The Night Foster Died

Maggie Williams's beeper went off at about 9:45 p.m. Hillary Rodham Clinton was calling, and the news was devastating: Vince Foster, the White House deputy counsel and one of the Clintons' oldest friends, had been found dead, an apparent suicide, in Fort Marcy Park across the Potomac River from Washington. As the First Lady's chief of staff, Williams kept a low profile but wielded a large influence in the Clinton White House; she, too, thought of Foster as a friend. Half in shock, she left her home and went to Foster's office in the White House's West Wing. Palsy Thomasson, another staffer, was already there. Williams collapsed on the sofa, sobbing about being unable to imagine the office without Vince. Foster's boss, White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum, came in and saw Thomasson behind Foster's desk. "I am here looking for a note," Thomasson told him. Nussbaum helped her, but they found nothing. Then, all three say, they left Foster's office without taking anything from it.

Like virtually every other aspect of Whitewater, this version of history is in dispute -- and next week it will be the focus of Senate hearings chaired by Sen. Al D'Amato of New York. Since the July 1998 night when Foster killed himself, the White House has been vague about what, exactly, happened in and around his office--especially about the fate of papers related to the Clintons' Whitewater real-estate dealings. Now, on the eve of the new congressional inquiry, NEWSWEEK has reviewed Foster's Whitewater file and key Secret Service documents and interviewed White House aides, other witnesses and lawyers involved in the case. What emerges is a detailed account of how aides--driven in part by a desire to protect the Clintons from any embarrassment--reacted after Foster's death. White House officials concede that the staff was sloppy, but deny any attempt to cover up or obstruct justice.

The possibility that Whitewater caused Foster's death is the holy grail for right-wing conspiracy theorists, and the hearings will revive all the unanswered questions about the sputtering scandal--and raise new ones as well. D'Amato, Republican to the core. has a rock-'em, sock-'em style and, NEWSWEEK has learned, a witness who says Maggie Williams carried a carton full of papers out of Foster's office that night. She denies it, and others explain the conflicting stories as the product of the confusion of those hectic hours. "People were shocked, upset, confused [by Foster's death], and their recollections differ," says Mark Fabiani, a White House associate counsel. "Nobody should be surprised about that."

Torn note: The main issue is whether Clinton's staff exercised enough care in preserving evidence after Foster's death-and specifically, whether anything was removed from his office that suggests Foster killed himself over Whitewater. NEWSWEEK'S reporting shows that Clinton aides consistently hindered U.S. Park Police officers who were investigating Foster's death, and that Nussbaum ignored a torn note in Foster's briefcase even after aides pointed it out to him. That note turned out to be the best evidence about Foster's state of mind. But NEWSWEEK has uncovered no evidence that Foster's death was in any way connected to the Whitewater scandal. Nussbaum, who left the administration in 1994, says the Senate investigation is "much ado about nothing." But a senior White House adviser concedes that the hearings are likely to be "messy."

The mess began at about 8:30 on the evening of July 20, 1993, when Park Police informed the Secret Service that the dead man in Fort Marcy Park was a White House official. David Watkins, director of White House management, was at the movies with his family when the Secret Service beeped him. Watkins went to Foster's house in Georgetown and gave the bitter news to Foster's wife, Lisa, who instantly broke down. Soon, a number of administration officials and old Arkansas friends came to console the family--and in the confusion, Park Police officers Cheryl Braun and John Rolla gently tried to interview family members about Foster's suicide.

They got little or no cooperation. Braun told Senate investigators that Webster Hubbell, the former associate attorney general who was one of Foster's colleagues at the Rose Law Finn in Little Rock, "came up and shoved me out of the way" when she tried to question Foster's sister. Braun also testified she asked Walkins to seal off Foster's White House office. Walkins says he can't recall Braun's request. But he did hear Lisa Foster ask if her husband had left a suicide note and, at 10:34 p.m., Watkins reached Thomasson to ask her to search Foster's office.

Flash point: That was how she, Nussbaum and Williams wound up together in the West Wing that night -- and brief as it was, their intrusion may be a flash point in the Senate hearings. NEWSWEEK has learned that a uniformed Secret Service guard, Henry O'Neill, has told FBI and Senate investigators that Maggie Williams was carrying a box of documents when she left the room. Williams denies it--and investigators for the Whitewater special prosecutor, Kenneth Start, gave her a lie-detector test last year to try to settle the question. Williams passed, and White House sources say O'Neill may be mixed up about the timing. But O'Neill has told investigators he is certain he saw Williams carrying the box at night--and if he's right, that could only have been the evening of Foster's death.

The mess got worse the next day. Park Police were well aware of Foster's importance within the administration; obviously, his suicide could have political repercussions. An investigative team arrived at the White House to look for evidence. First, the cops were forced to cool their heels in the basement. Then they learned that Nussbaum, Thomasson and Williams had already been in Foster's office. At that point, "good police work was out the window," says one of the Park Police investigators-the evidence. he claims, had already been "contaminated." The cops complained through channels to the Department of the Interior, which consulted the Justice Department. Justice and the White House finally agreed that the police, accompanied by FBI agents, would be allowed to observe while Nussbaum and other White House lawyers searched Foster's office.

This was more reasonable and less sinister than it sounds-- Foster's office was crammed with sensitive information, most of it protected by executive privilege. But the negotiations delayed the search for a full day, and the cops and some Justice Department officials were angry at the way it was conducted. The investigators were forced to sit in chairs around the periphery of the of-flee while Nussbaum pawed through Foster's papers, sorting them in piles. Some were clearly personal; they went to Foster's family. Some were Bill and Hillary Clinton's private records; they went to the Clintons' outside legal counsel. And some, like a list of prospective nominees for the Supreme Court, were top-secret records of the Clinton presidency that were shielded by executive privilege. At one point, an FBI agent stood up from his chain "I hope you're not trying to get a peek," said White House Associate Counsel Cliff Sloan.

Straight arrow: Somehow, they missed the only piece of evidence that suggests Foster was depressed--the shredded note that described his agony at the political sniping that, to Beltway veterans, is simply part of the job. Foster was a private man--a straight arrow who took great pride in his own rigorous ethical standards. But at the White House, he saw his old friends Bill and Hillary--and himself--subject-ed to criticism. One issue was the purge of the White House travel office, which made the Clinton crowd look like patronage hacks. Foster had seemed obsessed by it. Nussbaum, during his search, unloaded Foster's brief-case and turned it upside down. "It's empty," he said.

It wasn't. As NEWSWEEK sources tell it, Cliff Sloan called Nussbaum's attention to scraps of paper in the bottom of the briefcase--but only after the Park Police and the FBI had left. Mike Spafford, a lawyer for the Foster family, told investigators that Nussbaum brushed Sloan off; Nussbaum and Sloan say they don't recall the incident. It wasn't until four days later that another White House lawyer, Steven Neuwirth, discovered the shreds and assembled them into the note investigators now believe offers the clear-eat due about Foster's state of mind. "I made mistakes from ignorance, inexperience and overwork," it read in part. "I did not knowingly violate any law or standard of conduct." Foster's wife says the note was probably her husband's draft for a statement on the travel-office flap--not Grist for conspiracy buffs: Foster's proximity to the Clintons--and his suicide--are at the dark heart of the Whitewater scandal Rock 'em, sock 'em: 1) D' Amato's hearings will ask whether White House aides knowingly obstructed justice -- or merely panicked Whitewater. (NEWSWEEK has also reviewed a previously undisclosed handwritten notebook in which Foster painstakingly detailed his actions in the travel-office controversy.)

Foster's file on Whitewater, which was moved from his office to a closet in the White House residence after his death and kept there for three days, consists of 52 pages of documents. The papers are mostly routine -- stock certificates, the Whitewater company's corporate charter and the financial records used to prepare an in-house report on Whitewater that was largely ignored by the press and public during the 1992 campaign. The file does include some curious details, at least one of which could be embarrassing to the Clintons. There's a 1990 warning from the Clintons' accountant that says the company's books were a shambles. And there is a memo written by Foster suggesting that, ironically, he got involved in Whitewater only because Clinton financial adviser Jim Blair missed a crucial December 1992 meeting after Blair's plane couldn't land because of fog at the Little Rock airport. But there is no document, memo, note or scrap of paper suggesting that Foster, the Clintons or anyone else was orchestrating a cover-up.

The White House is now in the impossible position of trying to prove a negative. Nussbaum, Thomasson and Williams cannot demonstrate that Foster's papers did not contain an incriminating memo; they can only say they never saw one. The Senate hearings, meanwhile, will show that Nussbaum, Watkins, Thomasson and other aides quite plainly bungled the investigation of Foster's death. All suicides leave a mess behind, but this mess, with its implications for the 1996 campaign, is larger than most. The sad part, for those who knew Foster, is that his private tragedy has now become a very public embarrassment for his friends.

Whitewater investigators have ruled Vince Foster's death a suicide. The Senate's inquiry will start by untangling the mystery of what happened next at the white House. The key events:

July 20, 1993, 5:45 P.M. Foster's body is found near a cannon inn Fort Marcy Park.

8:30 P.M. The Secret Service beeps David Watkins, then a senior White House administrator, in a movie theater. Watkins and two Park Police officers go to Foster's home to tell Lisa Foster about her husband's death. One policewoman says she was prevented from questioning family members.

9:40 P.M. White House chief of staff Mack McLarty calls Hillary Clinton in Arkansas, who in turn calls her aide Maggie Williams (right).

10:34 P.M. Though Park Police say they'd asked him to seal the room, Watkins tells an aide, Pattsy Thomasson, to look for a suicide note inn Forster's office. Bernard Nussbaum (right), then White House counsel, arrives within the hour to finds Williams sobbing on the sofa and Thomason at the desk. They leave at 11:41 p.m., having found on note. A Secret Service agent claims Williams took away a box; she says nothing was removed.

July 21. Nussbaum refuses to let Park Police search the office or interview White House aides. He then posts a Secret Service guard at the office door.

July 22. Nussbaum sorts Foster's files while investigators sit at a distance. He opens Foster's briefcase and pronounces it empty. But five days later the White House turns over scraps of paper it says was in the briefcase.