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E-mail hearings yield fireworks, but no new information

Former White House lawyer blasts Burton in emotional testimony

May 4, 2000
Web posted at: 6:06 p.m. EDT (2206 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Day four of the House Government Reform Committee's public hearings into the thousands of missing White House electronic mail messages focused Thursday on the operations of the White House Counsel's Office -- with former Counsel Charles Ruff telling the panel that perceptions of the situation as anything other than a technical problem were misleading.

White House e-mails

Saying he felt strongly that he had to rectify an "incorrect version of historical events," Ruff, who played a prominent role in the House impeachment proceedings and subsequent Senate trial of President Bill Clinton, said his office had been aware of a failure of an electronic mail archiving system. His primary concern at the time, he said, was to determine if any of those missing e-mails were relevant to subpoenas issued by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr in the Monica Lewinsky matter.

To say that the White House had been engaged in any sort of coverup, Ruff said firmly, "I submit, is simply flat-out wrong."

Ruff appeared before the panel Thursday along with former Associate Counsel Cheryl Mills and Mark Lindsay, assistant to the president for management and administration.

Lindsay's name has figured prominently in the e-mail controversy and he has already made one appearance before the Government Reform Committee to discuss the matter.

Mills, who also figured prominently in the impeachment defense of the president, is no longer employed at the White House.

The committee questioned all three Thursday about the level of communication between the counsel and administrative offices on the e-mail problem, with majority members' lines of inquiry focusing on how closely the offices coordinated their efforts to retrieve the missing information, and to supply it to a number of investigative bodies if any of it had been required by pending subpoenas.

Charles Ruff
Former White House Counsel Charles Ruff  

Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Indiana) is exploring whether the White House deliberately withheld e-mails that had been subpoenaed or otherwise requested by his committee, as well as Starr and Justice Department campaign finance investigators.

The White House says the e-mails fell though the cracks when its "automatic records management system," an electronic mail archiving system, failed.

White House officials blame a "disconnect" between their technicians, who diagnosed the e-mail problem, and their lawyers, who apparently did not fully understand how the problem might affect pending subpoena requests.

Burton and his fellow committee Republicans say they are trying to determine if more sinister forces were working to hide behind the computer foul-up, saying that many of those estimated 246,000 e-mails are relevant to the investigations of the Monica Lewinsky matter, alleged campaign finance improprieties, the firing of a number of White House travel office employees, and other issues between 1996 and late 1998.

One search produced no new information, Ruff says

Lindsay, Mills and Ruff each expressed some amount of confusion Thursday over the chain of responsibility charged with reconstructing and producing the missing e-mails.

Mills
Former Associate White House Counsel Cheryl Mills  

Ruff said the White House counsel's office was primarily concerned with attending to messages that may have been relevant to requests for information made by Starr's office, and an order was made to have available back up information searched for all e-mailed material related to Monica Lewinsky.

That search apparently yielded nothing in the way of new information.

"I understood that this was an issue that we needed to address, particularly in the context of the Independent Counsel subpoenas," Ruff said in response to a line of questioning by Burton. "My immediate focus was on the immediate compliance with the independent counsel's subpoenas."

Still, the lines of communication between Ruff's and Lindsay's offices were not clear, as Ruff said he had learned from Lindsay that there was indeed a problem.

Lindsay had testified in March that he informed Ruff of the technical failure in June 1998 -- in the throes of the Lewinsky probe.

Mills, who committee Republicans insisted had been present at a meeting between the counsel and administrative offices about the problem, said she could not recall being present, saying instead that she had learned about the problem later from Ruff.

"My impression was that there had been an e-mail problem," Mills testified. "We had to determine if e-mails had been missed, and those e-mails had to be searched and reviewed to see if they needed to be produced -- immediately."

Quizzed about who might have been responsible for initiating the Lewinsky-related search, Lindsay said he could not recall, though he thought some employees of Northrop Grumman -- the independent contractor charged with the oversight of the archiving system -- had been involved.

One of those involved, Lindsay recalled, may have been Northrop employee Betty Lambuth. Lambuth had testified earlier before the committee that she had been threatened by administration officials not to reveal the nature of the problem, or she and other Northrop employees would face severe consequences.

The Washington Times reported Thursday that Lambuth was questioned this week by Robert Ray -- Starr's replacement in the independent counsel's office -- about the alleged threats and the e-mail problem.

Later in the afternoon, current White House Counsel Beth Nolan said she too was uncertain about who might have initiated the search for the Lewinsky-specific e-mails.

"We do not know who asked for the search to be done," Nolan told the committee.

Mills takes Burton to task

In her opening statement, Mills pilloried Burton and the panel's Republicans for their ongoing investigations, saying she left public service because she had been "deeply troubled by the culture of partisanship in Washington," and had become "cynical about the congressional committee's commitment to serve the people."

In his opening statement, Burton had chastised Mills for not being more willing to alter her personal schedule to appear before the committee.

"They've got an uphill battle to convince us everything is on the up-and-up," Burton said of the three witnesses.

Mills, in an emotional statement, said the conduct of congressional Republicans who were "trying to tear down the staff of a president with whose vision and policies you disagree" has brought hundreds of capable young people to reach a decision not to serve the public.

"Their desire to serve their country and their president is not worth the losses to their livelihood, families and reputations," a defiant Mills said.

Mills was complimented for her remarks by panel Democrats, but Republican Christopher Shays of Connecticut accused Mills of demonstrating a "profound lack of respect for this constitutional process."

"I have been pushed to anger by the pervasive moral and ethical minimalism of this White House," Shays said in response to Mills.

 
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