White House memo links Mrs. Clinton to firings Document contradicts official version of '93 travel staff dismissals

January 05, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- A memo by a former presidential aide depicts Hillary Rodham Clinton as the central figure in the 1993 travel office dismissals, a politically damaging episode that the aide said resulted from a climate of fear in which officials did not dare question her wishes.

The newly released draft memo, written by David Watkins, the former top administrative aide at the White House, also sharply contradicts the White House's official account of Mrs. Clinton as merely an interested observer in the events that led to the dismissal of the White House travel staff and its replacement with Clinton associates from Arkansas.

In the memo, apparently intended for Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, then the White House chief of staff, Mr. Watkins wrote that "we both know that there would be hell to pay" if "we failed to take swift and decisive action in conformity with the first lady's wishes."

Mr. Watkins, a close Clinton associate from Arkansas, wrote the memo in an effort to respond to criticism of his role in the dismissal of all seven travel office employees in May 1993. He himself was dismissed in 1994 after using a government helicopter for a golf outing, and White House officials yesterday discounted his description of Mrs. Clinton's role as inaccurate.

The Watkins memo describes pressure for action coming directly from Mrs. Clinton and indirectly through two close Clinton friends -- Harry Thomason, a Hollywood producer and part-owner of an air-charter consulting firm and Vincent W. Foster Jr., the deputy White House counsel who committed suicide in July 1993.

"Once this made it onto the first lady's agenda," Mr. Watkins wrote, "Vince Foster became involved, and he and Harry Thomason regularly informed me of her attention to the travel office situation -- as well as her insistence that the situation be resolved immediately by replacing the travel office staff.

"Foster regularly informed me that the first lady was concerned and desired action -- the action desired was the firing of the travel office staff. Friday, when I was in Memphis, Foster told me that it was important that I speak directly with the first lady that day. I called her that evening and she conveyed to me in clear terms her desire for swift and clear action to resolve the situation."

A White House report on the matter, issued in July 1993, said Mrs. Clinton was informed of problems at the travel operation and asked concerned questions but did little more.

By contrast, in Mr. Watkins' account, written in the fall of 1993, the dismissals were pushed through precipitously almost entirely Mrs. Clinton's insistence, despite his own preference for a gradual reorganization.

"The first lady was concerned and desired action -- the action desired was the firing of the travel office staff," he wrote. He said he would have resisted but was afraid he would be dismissed.

In explaining this, Mr. Watkins referred to an earlier incident in which Mrs. Clinton had reportedly become furious over Mr. Watkins' failure to transfer Secret Service agents she blamed for leaking an an unflattering story.

"If I thought I could have resisted those pressures, undertaken more considered action and remained in the White House, I certainly would have done so," he wrote. "But after the Secret Service incident, it was made clear that I must more forcefully and immediately follow the direction of the first family."

Mr. Watkins discussed the matter once with Mrs. Clinton, five days before the dismissals, after Mr. Foster told him that he should speak directly with her.

During that conversation, according to the memo, Mrs. Clinton told him that "she thought immediate action was in order" because the company that had handled the Clinton campaign's charters could pick up the work.

Mr. Watkins also hinted that he may not have told the full story to investigators who reviewed the dismissals. He referred to his memo as a "soul-cleansing." and "a first attempt to set the record straight."

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