WASHINGTON DESK - The controversy over how a U.S. firm collected tainted blood from Arkansas prison inmates and shipped it to Canada has spread to Vince Foster - U.S. President Bill Clinton's personal confidant who committed suicide in 1993.
Vincent Foster, a boyhood friend of Mr. Clinton's, was one of the president's most trusted advisers. As a corporate lawyer in Arkansas, he worked in the same law office as Hillary Rodham Clinton and became a close colleague of hers.
Back when Mr. Clinton was governor of Arkansas, and the state contracted with Health Management Associates, to provide medical care for prisoners. Mr. Clinton permitted the Health Maganeement company to collect blood at $7 a unit from Arkansas prison convicts.
Through an unsuspecting Canadian broker, this prisoner-blood, some of which proved to be HIV-tainted, entered the Canadian blood
supply. By that time, the U.S. had ceased using blood from prisons because of reports of widespread drug use and unsafe sex.
Leonard Dunn, a close friend and chair of Clinton's Campaign reelection finance committee and a Clinton appointee to the
Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, was, coincidentally, the president of Health Management.
When Mr. Clinton left Arkansas for the White House in early 1993, he called on Mr. Foster - known as an earnest individual with high ethical standards - to join him as deputy White House counsel. Mr. Foster obliged, also remaining the Clintons' personal lawyer. Now, five years after his mysterious death, two developments have prompted questions about Mr. Foster's knowledge of the U.S. company's prison-blood collection scheme:
- There are signs that Mr. Foster tried to protect the company called Health Management Associates (HMA) more than a decade ago in a lawsuit.
- And a major U.S. daily newspaper recently reported that Mr. Foster may have been worried about the tainted-blood scandal, which was just emerging as a contentious issue in Canada, when he killed himself in July 1993.
Mr. Clinton was governor of Arkansas when the Canadian blood supply was contaminated in the early and mid-1980s. He was familiar with the operations of the now-defunct HMA, the Arkansas firm given a contract by Mr. Clinton's state administration to provide medical care to prisoners. In the process, HMA was also permitted by the state to collect prisoners' blood and sell it elsewhere.
HMA's president in the mid-1980s, Leonard Dunn, was a friend of Mr. Clinton's and a political ally. Later, Mr. Dunn was a Clinton appointee to the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission and he was among the senior members of Mr. Clinton's 1990 gubernatorial re-election team.
The contaminated prisoners' plasma - used to create special blood products for hemophiliacs - is believed to have been infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. As well, it's likely the plasma was contaminated with hepatitis C.
Any information linking Mr. Foster to HMA and its blood program is bound to raise more questions about how much Mr. Clinton knew.
Michael Galster, a medical practitioner who did contract work for the prison system, has revealed to the Citizen that Mr. Foster once approached him in the mid 1980s to ask for a favor.
At the time, Mr. Clinton's administration and HMA were facing a $12-million lawsuit from a prisoner whose infected leg had been amputated at the hip in 1982.
The inmate was claiming that poor medical care by an HMA doctor -- who had been working in the prison despite being denied a permanent license to practice by the state medical board - had resulted in the needless amputation.
Mr. Galster, an expert in prosthetics, says HMA's medical director had asked him to build a special artificial leg for the prisoner in the hope that it would lead to an out-of-court settlement. Mr. Galster refused to get involved, and was visited several weeks later at his office by Mr. Foster, who appealed again for his assistance.
"The purpose of his being there was to convince me to take this, smooth it over and everybody would be happy," says Galster, who has written a fictionalized account of the prison-blood collection saga, called Blood Trail.
"I refused him. Galster wrote, 'I understand your predicament, but this could make it difficult for you to get a future state contract. If it's like the past state contracts I've had, I don't need any," Galster says he replied. "He kind of laughed and said 'OK, I appreciate your time.' "
It was the only time the two met, but Galster now says he believes Foster was trying to protect both Mr. Clinton and HMA from public embarrassment.
The questions surrounding Foster became even more intriguing when, a few U.S. Newspapers reported the Arkansas prison blood disaster.
Sources reported that a day or two after Mr. Foster died on July 20, 1993, someone called a little-known phone number at the White House counsel's office where Mr. Foster had worked. A informant said the caller told authorities of "... information that might be important ... Something had upset Vince Foster greatly just days before he died. Something about 'tainted blood' that both Vince Foster and President Clinton knew about, this man said."
Foster's mysterious death spawned a political controversy from the moment that police, responding to an anonymous 911 caller, found his body in a national park in Washington, D.C.
Police concluded that Mr. Foster had stood there coat less in the late afternoon heat, inserted the muzzle of an antique Colt 38. revolver into his mouth and pulled the trigger. Immediately, conspiracy theorists began spreading rumors that Mr. Foster had been murdered. But independent counsel Robert Fiske conducted his own review and agreed with police that it was suicide.
No wonder questions have been raised over whether Foster was distressed about something he knew regarding tainted blood that may have led to his suicide.
In Canada, the summer of 1993 was a critical period. A Commons committee, which had conducted a brief review of the tainted blood scandal, had just released its report in May. Its first recommendation called for a major "public inquiry" to conduct a "full examination of the events of the 1980s" when the Canadian blood supply became contaminated with AIDS.
Indeed, on Sept. 16 - eight weeks after Foster's death - the federal government announced the public inquiry, to be headed by Justice Horace Krever. During the course of his work, Justice Krever unearthed the Arkansas prison-blood collection scheme and wrote about it in his final report last year.