Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who was confirmed by the Senate on Friday as the new secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), played a weird role in one of the most notorious moments of the Whitewater scandal: the suicide of Vince Foster.
In 1993, Burwell was a staff director at the National Economic Council. Foster, a central character in the Whitewater controversy, was the deputy White House counsel at the time of his death and a former law partner of Hilary Clinton.
On the night of Foster’s suicide, Burwell somehow ended up with the garbage from Foster’s office trash bin.
She later testified before a Senate committee that “on her own she went through trash in Foster’s office and found no suicide note but only routine credit card receipts, schedules and news summaries,” according to a Reuters article from 1995.
The New York Times reported at the time that “Ms. Mathews had also managed to retrieve a [different] special bag of garbage containing classified and sensitive papers that was usually destroyed by the Secret Service. The contents of the bag were never examined by anyone to see if Mr. Foster had left anything in it that might shed light on his state of mind. Ms. Mathews said that she got the bag from the Secret Service and began looking briefly through it, when she discovered that it contained all of the classified garbage from the West Wing.”
Two decades later, it’s still unclear exactly why Burwell had the trash or what her role, if any, was in the scandal.
When we asked HHS for comment, a spokesperson called us back with several questions of his own: “What is your story? What does this have to do with HHS?” he asked. “What does this have to do with what happened today? Why is this newsworthy?”
HHS later declined to provide a statement on the incoming secretary’s version of events. “No comment,” the HHS spokesperson told us via email.
Burwell’s predecessor at HHS, Kathleen Sebelius, is leaving the agency after the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act. She has also taken heat for refusing to testify before Congress on more than one occasion. Burwell won the Republican vote by promising to be more transparent and responsive than Sebelius.
This post has been updated with more information from HHS.
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