Angry FBI director vows battle to stay in his job Sessions assails report, accusers

January 24, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- His job in peril, FBI Director William S Sessions summoned reporters to his office yesterday for an impassioned 90-minute defense of his conduct, saying he was the victim of a political attack and false accusations by the Justice Department.

In caustic, often emotional terms, Mr. Sessions argued his case like a defense lawyer making a final plea to save his reputation. He denounced former Attorney General William P. Barr and the Justice Department's internal ethics office, saying, "It is they who should hang their heads in shame."

"I am not ashamed," Mr. Sessions said. "My conduct was not improper. My conduct was not unethical."

On Jan. 15, his final day in office, Mr. Barr approved a scathingly critical report by the internal ethics office on Mr. Sessions'

conduct. President Clinton's spokesman, George Stephanopoulos, has described that report as deeply disturbing. But yesterday, Mr. Sessions said: "My attorney general accepted the report and then fled the office. He was in league with others in the department who were determined to scuttle the director."

Although the White House, with Mr. Stephanopoulos' remarks, seemed to signal that it would like Mr. Sessions to withdraw, the director said he would fight to save his job. He said he had not yet spoken to the White House to gauge his support.

Mr. Sessions asserted that his chances to keep his job were "excellent," based on a statement by Mr. Clinton's spokesman saying that White House officials would review Mr. Sessions' rebuttal.

Mr. Clinton, who was asked about Mr. Sessions at a photo session in the Oval Office, said only, "I don't want to talk about it."

But Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, suggested that Mr. Sessions should consider stepping down.

"While he has a term of office, which is significantly unexpired, I think that there is a sufficient basis to remove him for cause, unless he can come out and exonerate himself," Mr. Specter said on CNN's "Newsmaker Saturday." (Mr. Sessions was appointed in 1987 to a 10-year term but serves at the president's pleasure.)

Mr. Sessions seemed prepared to take his case to Congress and was trying to contact the chairmen of the judiciary committees in the House and Senate to build support.

But Mr. Sessions' support inside and outside the FBI has appeared to erode substantially since Tuesday, when the report was made public. It said Mr. Sessions repeatedly billed the government for private trips aboard FBI aircraft; improperly charged the government $10,000 for a fence erected at his Washington house; improperly claimed a tax exemption on his official limousine as a law enforcement vehicle; and refused to cooperate when investigators tried to look into whether he had received favorable terms on a home mortgage loan.

Mr. Sessions insisted yesterday that the main findings were false, but he also said he would comply with the remedial steps ordered by Mr. Barr, including repayment for part of the fence and reimbursement for any unauthorized trips taken at government expense.

Stalking around his conference room at the J. Edgar Hoover building in a blue suit and red tie, his hands shoved in his pockets, the usually affable former federal judge tore into his accusers. And he provided detailed descriptions of the use of his FBI limousine and even itineraries from 5-year-old trips to rebut .. the finding that he had improperly billed the government for private travel.

In defending a stop in Fort Smith, Ark., where he once went to visit his father on his birthday, Mr. Sessions said, "Yes, we did go by and visit my daddy on his birthday," he said, noting how the Justice report had failed to note that his pilot had recommended the stop to refuel his plane.

Mr. Sessions blamed a disgruntled former head of his security detail for most of the accusations. He said the agent had been demoted after he was discovered in the bedroom of the director's home. Mr. Sessions said he never knew why the agent was there, but others have said that Mr. Sessions' wife, Alice, feared that her husband's critics within the agency were illegally eavesdropping on him.

It was evident that Mr. Sessions had decided to reach outside the FBI to shore up his position. Aides handed out a statement of support for Mr. Sessions by Coretta Scott King and Andrew Young. The statement praised Mr. Sessions' efforts to end the legacy of discrimination within the FBI and mentioned the "stormy relationship" between the King family and the FBI stemming from the agency's surveillance and harassment campaign against the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Mr. Sessions also offered a point-by-point defense of his conduct lTC in a memorandum released by his lawyers, Thomas M. Susman and James R. Phelps, in which they described the ethics report as "inaccurate, incomplete and biased in a way that seriously misleads the public."

At times, Mr. Sessions seemed to ramble in exasperated defense of his actions; his aides, sitting in silence, seemed uncomfortable with his accounting of personal matters, such as the terms of his home loan, and his description of how he balanced aesthetics vs. security as he deliberated the construction of the fence around his property.

It is uncertain whether Mr. Sessions will keep his job. Mr. Clinton dropped Zoe Baird, his nominee for attorney general, when she ran into trouble, and few people seem to think that the new president would take on the unneeded political baggage caused by the problems of Mr. Sessions, a wounded Republican brought in by the Reagan administration in 1987.

But Mr. Sessions' case is also complicated by partisan politics, because it was the Republicans who had grown disaffected with his stewardship and Democrats who applauded his efforts, such as his campaign to stabilize race relations in the FBI.

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