President Clinton and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen moved abruptly Thursday to disassociate themselves from the conduct of aides who met privately three times in recent months to review the status of a confidential investigation into an Arkansas savings and loan.
"I think it would have been better if no conversations had taken place," Clinton said after news accounts detailed two previously unknown discussions between senior Treasury officials and White House aides about the investigation of the thrift, Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan.
Clinton said he thought Bernard Nussbaum, the White House counsel, and others who participated in them had done nothing wrong. But he said he feared they had left such an impression of impropriety that he ordered the White House chief of staff to draft new restrictions for his aides.
Bentsen went further, issuing a statement saying he had asked Treasury's Office of Government Ethics to review his subordinates' conduct.
In a related development, an employee of the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Ark., told a federal grand jury that in late January he was ordered to destroy a box of documents from the files of Vincent Foster, the White House lawyer whose suicide is under investigation by an independent counsel.
People familiar with the testimony of the in-house courier said he told the grand jury last month that at a clerk's direction, he and a colleague had used a shredder in the firm's basement to destroy the papers.
The firm's former partners include Hillary Rodham Clinton; Webster Hubbell, the associate attorney general; William H. Kennedy III, an associate White House counsel; and Foster. All left the firm to go to Washington last year.
The courier, a college student who runs messages and errands, testified he did not know precisely what he had shredded but said he was certain the papers had come from Foster's files, those familiar with the account said. He said he had seen no references to Whitewater in the papers he shredded.
If the shredding occurred after the firm was put on notice that the special prosecutor wanted to review Foster's documents, such an action might have been improper, legal experts said.
The Rose firm denied any of Foster's files were shredded. "A box of old files containing internal Rose firm materials" was destroyed when a lawyer changed offices, it said in a statement.