WASHINGTON - The chairman of the Senate committee investigating campaign finance abuses accused the White House on Wednesday of deliberately withholding official minute-by-minute logs of President Clinton's actions.
"Obviously, this kind of information is of critical value to the committee," said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.
The logs, which the committee learned about on Monday, are called "daily diaries." They contain detailed information about people the president met and spoke with, Thompson said.
Thompson said the committee's many demands for documents and materials included specific requests for diaries.
"Not only has the White House simply failed to produce these documents but it has also failed to disclose even the existence of these diaries," he said.
White House chief counsel Charles Ruff, appearing before the committee, said the logs are not diaries in the usual meaning of the word. Ruff said presidential diarist Ellen McCathran, an employee of the National Archives, simply collected and indexed all material relating to the president's schedule.
"I don't believe it's fair to suggest we've withheld some treasure trove of information," Ruff said. He said the White House used McCathran's index to locate relevant schedules, phone logs, trip books, briefing papers and other materials for the committee.
The Senate panel is probing fund-raising irregularities connected to the 1996 election. It called Ruff and two other members of the White House counsel's office to testify Wednesday about the Clinton administration's six-month delay in producing 150 videotapes of presidential coffees with contributors.
The White House said it only discovered the existence of the tapes early this month, even though it was well known that camera operators were present at virtually all presidential events.
The tapes haven't proved any wrongdoing. Some clips show Clinton chatting with key figures in the campaign fund-raising scandal, including former Democratic Party fund-raiser John Huang and Clinton supporters Johnnie Chung and Charlie Trie.
On Wednesday, Republicans also requested another 60 videotapes of Clinton appearances at fund-raising and other political events.
These new tapes include events at the homes of contributors, fund raisers for other Democrats, political rallies and Clinton briefings for party insiders.
Thompson's accusation set the stage for a sharp exchange between Michael Madigan, the chief Republican investigator on the committee, and the White House witnesses.
Lanny Breuer, a special counsel to the president, said the White House had diligently complied with requests for documents even if they were politically embarrassing.
"The initial failure to search for videotapes of the coffees was the result of a slip-up of the most routine and innocent sort," Breuer said.
But Madigan said Breuer attended a meeting in early spring where investigators specifically asked for videotapes.
After 20 minutes of sparring, Breuer shot back, "It's a fiction to say there was a (Senate committee) concern back in April about the videotapes. It's a fiction."
More fireworks are expected at the committee Thursday. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt will face scrutiny over his decision to reject a casino project sought by three Wisconsin Indian tribes.
Republicans plan to assert that senior Interior Department officials were ready to urge Babbitt to approve the casino application, but that support ended after a rival Indian tribe that contributed $270,000 to the Democrats opposed the project.
Meanwhile, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the top Democrat on the committee, told reporters he would oppose any attempt to extend the committee's mandate past its Dec. 31 expiration date. Thompson asked for more time Tuesday in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.
"Noooo. On this type of blood bath against the Democrats? I don't have a death wish," Glenn said.
Instead, he said he will seek to have a commission created to investigate the fund-raising problems of the 1996 election and recommend ways to improve the system. The commission would include former members of the Federal Election Commission and former federal judges.
By Tom Squitieri, USA TODAY