Travel office report casts first lady in active role

May 03, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- A senior White House official said Hillary Rodham Clinton urged him last year to replace members of the travel office with "our people," congressional investigators reported yesterday.

The report by the General Accounting Office, a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, goes significantly beyond a White House review last July of the dismissal of all seven employees of the travel office on May 19. The new account depicts Mrs. Clinton as playing a more active role in the dismissals after the White House accused the workers of mismanagement.

The GAO report said that Mrs. Clinton did not dispute the account of the senior official, David Watkins, but that she did not recall the details of that conversation with him.

Five of the travel office employees were ultimately restored to government jobs; the remaining two retired. Since then, the Justice Department has been investigating the dismissals for possible criminal wrongdoing.

At the time of the dismissals, critics of the White House questioned what they called cronyism and the misuse of a law-enforcement agency when the White House called the FBI to investigate the employees.

The incident paralyzed the Oval Office staff for a week last May after the administration initially announced that the travel office was being mismanaged. To justify dismissing the workers, the White House said the employees were under investigation for possible criminal wrongdoing.

Ultimately, the White House said that some of its officials had appeared to pressure the FBI to get involved in the case. Although by all accounts the travel office was carelessly managed, the White House conceded that the dismissals had been engineered by Catherine Cornelius, a 25-year-old distant cousin of Mr. Clinton, and by Clinton friends -- Harry Thomason, a television producer, and Darnell Martens, Mr. Thomason's business partner in a charter-travel operation. The three had wanted to get the White House travel business for themselves.

The travel office provides arrangements for the White House press corps accompanying the president and for some administration officials.

In its internal review, the White House rebuked four officials and faulted Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, the White House chief of staff. Mr. McLarty was among those who helped prepare the document.

Although the internal review mentioned that Mrs. Clinton had taken an interest in accusations of mismanagement at the travel office, it portrayed her in a passive light. It said she had been informed, two days before the president, that the travel staff was to be dismissed.

Asked yesterday why the report by the accounting office included new information about Mrs. Clinton's involvement, Mark Gearan, the White House communications director, said: "Our review was a 30-day management report. The GAO's was a 9-month detailed investigation."

Mr. Gearan said that Mrs. Clinton had responded to written questions during the internal review.

The accounting office report made no significant mention of the president, who accepted responsibility for the incident last year.

The report concluded that the president has the authority to appoint and dismiss travel office employees and all other White House officials, although the seven people who were dismissed were career bureaucrats with White House service of eight to 30 years.

Yesterday's report, like the White House review, was critical of officials for failing to prevent personal friends of senior administration officials from exerting undue influence on the White House. It said the dismissals came after pressure was exerted by Mr. Thomason, Mr. Martens and Ms. Cornelius.

Ms. Cornelius has been assigned to the White House scheduling office. Mr. Thomason's White House pass, criticized by the GAO report, has been taken away, the White House said.

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