First lady didn't order travel firings, aide says Ex-official tells lawmakers of 'pressure' from others

January 18, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The presidential aide who fired the White rTC House travel office staff in 1993 said yesterday that Hillary Rodham Clinton did not order his actions. But newly released documents suggest that the first lady expressed to him the need to get "those people out" and "our people in."

The former White House official, David Watkins, told a House committee investigating the "Travelgate" affair that he stood by a "soul-cleansing" memo he wrote -- that has undercut the first lady's credibility since its discovery two weeks ago -- in which he warned there would be "hell to pay" if he failed to abide by Mrs. Clinton's wishes.

But he said yesterday that, while he felt "great pressure" from others to fire the seven career government employees -- and replace them with Arkansas associates, including a 25-year-old Clinton cousin -- that pressure did not come directly from Mrs. Clinton.

He said his one direct contact with Mrs. Clinton, a May 14 telephone conversation five days before the firings, was "very cordial and businesslike." His handwritten notes from the conversation quote her as saying, "We need those people out -- We need our people in -- We need the slots."

Some Republicans in Congress have argued that the firing was ordered by the first lady so that Clinton "cronies" could get some of the business of scheduling White House press corps travel.

In an interview on CNN yesterday, Mrs. Clinton reiterated that she "did not have a hand in making the decision" to fire the employees. "But I absolutely will say, as I have said for years, I did express concern," she added.

Mrs. Clinton has said she was concerned about reports of mismanagement in the office. A review by the Peat Marwick accounting firm found sloppy bookkeeping but no improprieties. The travel office director, Billy Dale, was acquitted of embezzlement charges after a trial.

But Rep. William F. Clinger Jr., chairman of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, charged yesterday that "the firings were decided upon long before any wrongdoing or mismanagement was alleged."

The Pennsylvania Republican said documents show that Harry Thomason, a Hollywood producer and Clinton friend, "peddled" false rumors of travel office wrongdoing so he and a business partner could take over the operation along with other government travel and aviation business.

In another memo released by the committee yesterday, Mr. Watkins indicates that Mr. Thomason may have served as an intermediary to pass along Mrs. Clinton's desire to remove the travel office staff.

He wrote that on May 12, two days before Peat Marwick began a review of the travel office operation, Mr. Thomason told him he "bumped into Hillary and she's ready to fire them all that day."

Mr. Thomason could not be reached for comment.

In the same memo, Mr. Watkins wrote that on May 12 and 13, Vincent W. Foster Jr., the deputy White House counsel who committed suicide two months later, told him the "first lady had inquired about travel office and why wasn't action being taken -- report was that they should be fired immediately and out of here by the end of the day."

Before questioning began at yesterday's hearing, Mr. Watkins invoked a seldom-used House rule allowing witnesses under subpoena to close the proceedings to cameras and microphones, a move that provoked the ire of both Democrats and Republicans.

Neither Mr. Watkins nor his lawyer would comment on their decision to bar cameras, a move that thwarted CNN and C-SPAN's live coverage. A White House spokesman said the administration did not endorse the decision.

Democrats on the committee decried the hearings as a waste of time and a partisan ploy. "We're wallowing in the travel office firings, not because there's wrongdoing, but because the first lady may be involved," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California. "That's titillating."

But Mr. Clinger, who said he planned to submit questions to Mrs. Clinton to be answered in writing, responded that the travel office episode, though "not about an illegal act," is about White House officials' "credibility."

He referred to the episode as "Mr. Thomason's Kafkaesque drama" in which the Clinton friend orchestrated a plan to replace the travel staff and spun a web of allegations of wrongdoing to justify it.

Documents show that Mr. Thomason and a business partner, Darnell Martens, outlined in January 1993 ways to pursue "Washington opportunities," including obtaining "some form of official status as advisers to the White House for general aviation policy matters" and conducting a review of all nonmilitary federal aircraft.

Records show that months before the travel office firings, Mr. Thomason met frequently with top White House officials, including President Clinton.

Testifying yesterday, Mr. Watkins said he did not believe Mr. Thomason encouraged the dismissals to gain business. Rather, he said, White House officials thought the firings would generate "positive" press articles about administration efforts to reduce staff and correct mismanagement.

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